Link Copied

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.

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.

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.
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

But fiber is fairly expensive and tedious to lay, especially between locations on opposite sides of Earth.

But fiber is fairly expensive and tedious to lay, especially between locations on opposite sides of Earth.
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

The advantages of Starlink improve dramatically over very long distances. (Over short distances, Handley said, fiber-optic will always win.)

The advantages of Starlink improve dramatically over very long distances. (Over short distances, Handley said, fiber-optic will always win.)
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

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).

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).
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

In rural and remote areas, even a partially complete Starlink network could bring broadband internet speeds rivaling those found in well-networked cities.

In rural and remote areas, even a partially complete Starlink network could bring broadband internet speeds rivaling those found in well-networked cities.
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

"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.

"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.
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

"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.

"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.
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

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"

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"
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide

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?"

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?"
Share Slide

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.

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.
Share Slide
More from our Partners