Everyone at SpaceX is buckling up for the launch of 60 internet satellites tonight. Called ‘Starlink’, the array of satellites will be the start of a new age for internet access to the world. The first phase of SpaceX’s vision starts today on May 16th at 230 GMT and you can watch the live stream down below, courtesy of SpaceX.
The 60 satellites will be tightly packed in a Falcon 9 payload fairing, according to Elon Musk. SpaceX has been conducting tests for a very long time with the most recent one being the Tintin-A and B prototype satellites that were launched into orbit early last year.
The 60 satellites being launched are still not the final hardware though according to COO Gwynne Shotwell. These are going to be used for testing the deployment scheme and will act as a foundation.
The final plan, however, for Starlink is a gargantuan fleet of satellites encompassing the whole planet. SpaceX plans to expand Starlink to over 12,000 satellites in a few years. They are starting with a smaller number because there are still a lot of things that need to be tested out and there are many hurdles that they need to overcome. For instance, the orbit is full of debris and testing the mechanisms to avoid it would prove to be crucial for the mass expansion.
To combat this, Starlink satellites have the ability to track any incoming debris and avoid it. Another thing that complicates things is the eventual entry back into the Earth after the end of a satellites life cycle. Thankfully, SpaceX claims to have sorted this issue out as well with over 95% of the satellite made of material that will decompose in the Earth’s atmosphere after entry.
What does it mean for the common consumer?
While the prospect of having global satellite internet is very exciting, we are still at least a few years off that reality.
The Starlink satellites are going to be operating in the lower orbit, around 550 kilometers above the Earth. Since the orbit would be lower, the area of effect for the satellite would be smaller as well. This means that we would need a massive number of satellites to provide coverage to a relatively larger area.
The current set of satellites, therefore are only slated for test purposes in very small regions. However, SpaceX is going to add satellites to other altitudes at some point in the future and will cover the Ku, Ka and V band. According to Elon Musk, SpaceX will need 6 more launches to achieve a “minor” level of coverage.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 12, 2019
One of the biggest drawbacks of consumer level satellite internet is the latency that comes with it. The signal takes time to travel between the satellite and the end user resulting in delays. This can affect things like gaming and other tasks that require quick response. However, SpaceX promises that their low orbit satellites will be able to bypass that hurdle and connect users with “low-latency, high bandwidth broadband services”.
Another thing to keep in mind that there is always a chance of failure. If the launch does not go well, SpaceX will have to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new solution. This could potentially set them back by months. However, the competition is very strong and everyone would be ready to pounce on the opportunity. For instance, Jeff Bezos also has a plan to have a fleet of his own called Blue Origin. Whoever manages to pull global satellite internet off first will surely have a massive advantage going forward so the stakes are high.
Exciting times still lie ahead though as every world-changing technology has to start from somewhere. This was the case when we got the current internet and this is the case now. We’re inching towards truly global internet and everyone having access to the internet would really change the whole landscape of the world. Even if it takes years to pull off, which is how long it is going to take realistically, we cannot underestimate the overall effect it will have on the worldwide communication. Still, even the current prospect of having a satellite fleet surrounding the Earth called Starlink manages to excite each and every single one of us.