Elon Musk's SpaceX is launching the first of 12,000 Starlink satellites to cover Earth in high-speed internet. Here's how the ambitious project might work.
- Elon Musk's SpaceX plans to launch its first 60 of nearly 12,000 internet-providing satellites on Wednesday evening.
- Starlink, as the project is called, could move internet data about 50% faster than is physically possible with current fiber-optic cables.
- Financial institutions have a lot to gain: Starlink could relay information about far-away markets significantly faster than modern technologies permit.
- Starlink should also bring cheap, blazing-fast internet to remote areas, airplanes, ships, and cars, plus make international teleconferencing and online gaming nearly lag-free.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
SpaceX, the rocket company founded by Elon Musk, is starting to launch an internet revolution.
On Wednesday between 10:30 p.m. and 12:00 a.m. EDT, weather permitting, SpaceX plans to launch a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Crammed inside the rocket's nosecone will be 60 tabletop-size satellites designed to test a floating internet backbone called Starlink.
If completed in 2027, Starlink will consist of nearly 12,000 satellites - six times the number of all operational spacecraft now in orbit. The goal is to blanket the Earth with high-speed, low-latency, and affordable internet access.
Even partial deployment of Starlink would benefit the financial sector and bring pervasive broadband internet to rural and remote areas. Though completing the project may cost $10 billion or more, according to Gwynne Shotwell, the president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, leaked company documents suggest Starlink's revenue could peak at more than $30 billion a year.
It's not going to be easy to pull off, though, as Musk indicated leading up to Wednesday's launch.
"Much will likely go wrong on 1st mission," Musk tweeted on Saturday.
Despite the Starlink's scale and importance to SpaceX, Musk and Shotwell have provided precious few details about it. But Federal Communications Commission (FCC) documents contain enough information for experts to make very educated guesses.
"This is the most exciting new network we've seen in a long time," Mark Handley, a computer networking researcher at University College London who's studied and modeled Starlink, told Business Insider. He added the project could impact the lives of "potentially everybody."
Here's how Starlink might work and how it might change the internet as we know it.
Starlink aims to solve two big problems with the modern internet, and make billions of dollars doing it: Lack of pervasive and affordable connections, and significant lag between distant locations.
The internet is, in its simplest form, a series of connected computers. We pay service providers for routing our data to and from a web of devices.
A lot of our data is sent in pulses of light through fiber-optic cables. More packets of information can go farther and with a stronger signal than via electrical signals through metal wires.
But fiber is fairly expensive and tedious to lay, especially between locations on opposite sides of Earth.
Even in one country, achieving a direct wired path from one location to another is rare. There are also far more poorly connected regions than well-connected ones.
The cables have a speed limit, too: Light moves through the vacuum of space about 47% faster than it can through solid fiber-optic glass.
This isn't an issue for normal browsing or watching TV. But over international distances, it leads to high latency, or lag. The time delay is especially pronounced in long-distance videoconferencing and calls.
Data beamed over current satellites is one of the most laggy. That's because nearly all of those spacecraft orbit Earth from about 22,236 miles (35,786 kilometers) high, where they can "float" above one location on Earth. But that's far enough to cause a more than half-second of lag.
Latency matter most to financial institutions. With markets that move billions of dollars in fractions of a second, any delay can lead to big losses over a competitor with a less laggy (and thus more up-to-date) connection to the web.
SpaceX wants to cut that long-distance lag while also providing internet access almost anywhere in the world. The company plans to do this through a dense and unprecedented network of satellites that hug close the Earth.
In February, SpaceX launched its first two Starlink prototypes, called Tintin-A and Tintin-B. The test helped demonstrate the basic concept and refine the satellite design.
On Wednesday, SpaceX plans to launch 60 close-to-production Starlink satellites at once. The launch will deploy them in a string in orbit at about 217 miles (350 kilometers) above Earth.
From there, they will use Hall thrusters (or ion engines) to rise up to an altitude of about 342 miles (550 kilometers). This will be about 65 times closer to Earth than geostationary satellites — and that much less laggy.
Each final Starlink spacecraft will also link to four others using laser beams. No other internet-providing satellites do this, says Handley, and it's really what makes them special: They can beam data over Earth's surface at nearly the speed of light, bypassing the limitations of fiber-optics.
SpaceX's first batch of 60 satellites won't use interconnecting lasers. Instead, Handley thinks the company will use them to test ground-to-space connections. A handful of steerable parabolic antennas that can track satellites will likely be used for this task.
In the future, though, Musk has said user terminals that can relay data to and from Starlink will have no moving parts and be the size of a pizza box. They'll also cost about $200, he added.
That's plenty small to add to a home. "There's also no reason one of these couldn't be flat and thin enough to put on the roof of a car," Handley said.
Musk said it takes about six launches (or 360 satellites) to establish "minor" internet coverage, and 12 launches (or 720 satellites) for "moderate" coverage. But the immediate and major goal is to deploy nearly 1,600 satellites about 217 miles (350 kilometers) high.
Once Starlink has hundreds of laser-linked satellites in its network, their connections can move data at close to light-speed along fairly direct paths. Handley thinks Starlink is designed to prioritize East-West connections.
Starlink's best paths will always change, since the satellites will always be moving. Yet the typical roundtrip data speed from New York to London, for example, may be 15% faster than fiber-optic and 40% faster than the internet generally.
The advantages of Starlink improve dramatically over very long distances. (Over short distances, Handley said, fiber-optic will always win.)
Handley says North-South connections won't be as good at first: Data will zigzag far out of the way to make its shortest roundtrip. So initially, Starlink may not be as fast as fiber (if it exists at all) between North-South connections.
On top of about 1,600 satellites orbiting in a shell at 342 miles (550 kilometers) high, SpaceX hopes to launch another 2,800 satellites at altitudes between 684-823 miles (1,100-1,325 kilometers). Some would orbit over Earth's poles to solve tricky North-South connections and help bring access to Alaska.
Half of these 4,400 low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites are supposed to be deployed by 2024, and the full constellation deployed by 2027. If SpaceX fails, the FCC may pull the company's license (though the company could ask for an extension).
But SpaceX is not stopping with 4,400 satellites in LEO. It also plans to roll out 7,500 satellites in very low-Earth orbits (VLEO), or about 210 miles (338 kilometers) in altitude.
In rural and remote areas, even a partially complete Starlink network could bring broadband internet speeds rivaling those found in well-networked cities.
While financial companies and teleconference businesses in urban areas should benefit from Starlink, Handley thinks consumer-level internet users probably won't see much benefit due to limited capacity.
"If millions of people want to hop onto Starlink all at one time, that is just not going to work," he said. The problem is akin to a cell tower being overloaded with too many users, which can slow down or disrupt connectivity.
Remote locations are a big opportunity, though, since there will be many satellites overhead with a lot of capacity and very few users. Cruise ships and airplanes could see much faster and lower-latency internet.
With so many new satellites in orbit, however, spaceflight experts are concerned about the potential for creating space junk that can damage or maim other spacecraft.
Pieces of space debris can travel dozen of times faster than a bullet shot from a gun. At such speeds, even a small piece of metal can blow apart a satellite, leading to the creation of more high-speed debris.
Handley says SpaceX's plan seems sensible, though. Each satellite can use its thruster to fall out of orbit and destroy itself. Also, in low-Earth orbit, fleeting gases will naturally slow down satellites over time, causing them to fall out of orbit within five years.
"They'll be going through a very rapid learning phase, and there's a fair chance they'll get some of it wrong," Handley said.
SpaceX plans to launch 60 Starlink satellites with its go-to Falcon 9 rockets, which are partly reusable and have successfully launched nearly five dozen space missions.
If SpaceX is to send up all 12,000 satellites that it needs to, and by the end of 2027 — the FCC's full-deployment deadline — it will have to launch, on average, about 120 Starlink spacecraft per month.
That translates to about two Falcon 9 launches per month, on SpaceX's own dime, and on top of a manifest of commercial and government satellite launches.
This also does not account for the replacement of satellites, which are designed to last about five years. "It's not just doing it once. It's completely ongoing," Handley said. "So you're committed to launching 12,000 every five years"
Handley does not think SpaceX's existing rockets are sufficient. "I think this requires Starship," he said. Starship, which is in development, may be a 400-foot-tall, fully reusable system that could launch hundreds of Starlink satellites at once, and perhaps at 10% of the cost of a Falcon 9 launch.
So while Musk often speaks about Starship in terms of settling Mars, Handley thinks Starlink is dependent on its existence. "You will have these very, very capable, fully reusable launchers sitting around waiting to go to Mars every two years," he said. "And what are you going to do with them in between?"
SpaceX is developing Starship concurrently in South Texas and Florida. Musk said in May that he expects to present new details about the system, which is expected to debut in the early 2020s, around June 20.
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