Elon Musk’s SpaceX is about to begin a revolution in their project, Starlink. A lot of people are excited about this project. On the other hand, some are hesitant to support it. What is it exactly? Here are five questions you might be asking.
What is Starlink?
Starlink is a constellation of satellites which are positioned in low-Earth orbit. SpaceX aims to deploy as many as 12,000 satellites to form this network in order to provide internet connection.
It is like rebuilding the entirety of the world’s internet infrastructure from scratch in space. While in itself, satellite-provided internet connection isn’t a new concept, the Starlink project is the first to take it to this magnitude.
The first 60 Starlinks satellites were launched into space in May 2019. Another batch of 60 were launched in November 2019. Most recently, a third batch of 60 satellites were launched last January.
What is Starlink’s goal?
Starlink’s mission is to provide internet connection in all parts of the world, including extremely remote locations. As it stands, around half of the world’s population continue to have no access to internet connection.
While of course, this problem of access cannot be resolved by just setting up satellites above Earth, such an infrastructure will greatly enable the strides to provide internet connection to the people.
Starlink satellites being set-up in low-Earth orbits are important for two reasons. First, being in low-Earth orbit would make it easier for these satellites to provide high-speed connections, apart from making them more accessible. Second, the position of Starlink satellites will help in keeping space clean.
In recent years, there has been discussions about the imminent problem of space junk. Currently, once an infrastructure deployed to space becomes inoperable, they tend to just stay floating in orbit. Because of the positioning of the Starlink satellites, they will eventually burn up in Earth’s atmosphere in a few years in the event that their propulsion systems cease to operate.
How do these satellites work?
Each satellite is about 260 kg in weight, making it extremely compact. Each satellite is equipped with four phased-array antennas which allows them to receive and redirect a large amount of throughput over short time periods.
Instead of the traditional cables, these antennas enable information to be beamed through space, a medium which allows transmissions to be 47% faster compared to fiber-optic cables.
In order to manoeuvre in space, these satellites use ion propulsion thrusters powered by krypton. These satellites are the first spacecrafts to be powered by krypton.
In order to prevent collision with space debris and other spacecraft, Starlink satellites are equipped with tracking systems. This way, they can autonomously steer clear of the way of space objects that humans might potentially overlook.
What potential issues may be encountered?
In a statement released by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), they said that satellite constellations might become a hindrance in the deeper understanding of the universe.
According to IAU, being made of highly reflective material, once hit by the Sun, these satellites appear as slow-moving dots in the sky which even in indiscernible to the human eye, will be detrimental to ground-based telescopes.
At the same time, the radio signals from the satellites can also disrupt astronomical observations. One can recall that the first image of a black hole was possible because of radio astronomy.
“The organisation, in general, embraces the principle of a dark and radio-quiet sky as not only essential to advancing our understanding of the Universe of which we are a part, but also as a resource for all humanity and for the protection of nocturnal wildlife,” IAU said.
What can we expect in the future for Starlink?
By the end of 2020, SpaceX aims to begin providing internet service. For this to happen, a few more launches are expected throughout the year. Apart from the provision of internet connection, SpaceX also needs to work in close collaboration with the astronomers in order the potential issues of Starlink before the number of satellites launched becomes too many.