Everything you need to know about SpaceX's Starlink plans for 'space internet'

Tech Radar

Last night, Elon Musk’s SpaceX made a huge commitment to the internet. Not in the form of one of the 'whoop whoop yeah!' style webcasts that always accompany its launches these days (though it did that too), but by launching the first 60 of up to 12,000 of SpaceX’s own satellites that could eventually bring fast Internet access to every human irrespective of where they are on the planet.

This is Starlink, and it’s finally happening.

Watch last night’s SpaceX launch take Starlink to space:

What did SpaceX just launch?

Departing Pad 40 in Cape Canaveral, Florida last night was a Falcon 9 reusable rocket loaded with 60 flat-packed satellites. That's not unusual for a SpaceX rocket, though until now almost all launches have been on behalf of other commercial partners. In 19 2018, SpaceX launched a total of 21 times, and in 2019 it's up to four launches. However, last night’s was different.

SpaceX

Starlink will mean launching 12,000 satellites into orbit (Image credit: SpaceX)

What is Starlink?

Starlink is a plan by SpaceX to put 12,000 satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO) that offer high-speed, low-latency, cheap internet access to anyone anywhere on the planet. That’s the end-game. All you would need to use Starlink is a $200 pizza box-sized receiver. Each satellite will talk to four others using lasers as they constantly orbit Earth, together creating a web of Ku-band and Ka-band broadband connectivity as fast as the speed of light that surrounds the planet at all times, and for all locations.

In order to beam connectivity to the surface, a massive network of ground-based stations will also be necessary. So although 12,000 satellites sounds like a lot, it's only a fraction of the infrastructure that SpaceX will have to construct.

Starlink will happen in phases, but the ultimate goal is to have about 8,000 satellites orbiting just 500km above the planet, and the remaining 4,000 orbiting much higher up, at around 1,200km.

SpaceX

SpaceX recently completed launching the Iridium NEXT constellation (Image credit: SpaceX)

What is 'space internet'?

Space internet is simply satellite-powered Internet access. This is not a new thing. Telecommunications satellites mostly sit in a geostationary orbit thousands of miles above Earth's equator and follow the direction of Earth's rotation, so appearing to stay in one place to serve one region. Their distance from Earth means a lag of about a second or more.

However, actual internet access via existing satellites is severely limited; Iridium’s LEO network offers data speeds of 2.4 kbps, and though that’s soon going to jump to 512 kbps (thanks to several dedicated rocket launches by SpaceX, ironically), it’s expensive and designed to serve companies and governments that need critical links in remote areas of the world (think container ships and scientists in the Antarctic), not the mass market.

Starlink satellites will be 65 times closer to Earth than geostationary satellites, and could also offer speeds of 10Gbps, which is faster than fiber optic internet.

SpaceX

Starlink could help SpaceX get to Mars (Image credit: SpaceX)

Why is SpaceX getting into ‘space internet’?

If SpaceX can offer speeds of 10 Gbps to every human on the planet, and undercut land-based networks, it could become a massive internet service provider. Add to that the fact that 50% of humans still have no internet access , and you start to see why SpaceX is so interested in making the most of its own rocket launch capabilities.

Though constructing Starlink could cost over US$10 billion, there’s evidence that SpaceX expects Starlink could earn it US$30 billion each year by 2025 . Starlink’s success could therefore be pivotal for Elon Musk’s plans to go to Mars .

NASA

Starlink satellites will be twice as high as the International Space Station, but 65 times closer to Earth than geostationary satellites (Image credit: NASA)

When will Starlink be operational?

”The first 60 Starlink satellites are not going to offer much of a service to begin with. In fact, Elon Musk tweeted that “Much will likely go wrong on 1st mission. Also, 6 more launches of 60 sats needed for minor coverage, 12 for moderate.” That's 12 Falcon 9 launches exclusively to launch Starlink satellites. Does SpaceX have that kind of spare capacity? Actually, it probably does … they’re partly reusable, remember. Space.com reports that SpaceX expanded its manufacturing ability to 40 rockets a year in readiness for a commercial boom that didn’t happen. “We thought the commercial market might expand to that, I think we probably wished it had, but [now] we've got plenty of capacity to launch our Starlink system,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX's president and chief operating officer.

That helps explain why SpaceX has decided to start launching Starlink now. However, this first batch is more of a test-bed than anything else; they won’t be laser-connected to each other, and will most likely be used to test ground-to-space links between antennas at Earth stations and the satellites.

OneWeb

The satellite broadband sector is getting competitive (Image credit: OneWeb)

Far from it. The world of satellite broadband is hotting-up, and high-speed ‘space internet’ is increasingly looking like the future. Expensive, regionally-locked yet fast satellite broadband services are incoming, while OneWeb – supported by Intelsat, Virgin Qualcomm, SoftBank and Hughes Networks Systems – intends to launch 640 satellites across 21 launches to create global broadband by 2020.

It launched its first 12 satellites in February. There’s also Amazon, whose ‘Project Kuiper ’ could see 3,236 satellites create a global broadband internet service after 2021.

SpaceX Starlink is hugely ambitious, but it won’t be alone.

Tech Radar
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