Starlink: A Constellation of Satellites
Issue 8, Volume 113
By Vinson Chen
You look at the night sky and see a line of bright lights. Are they stars? Planes? Aliens? Or are they just one of Elon Musk’s new projects? Elon Musk has been a hot topic in conversations and in the news for the past few years, mostly due to Tesla’s widespread manufacturing of electric cars and SpaceX’s reusable rockets. However, one of Musk’s lesser-known but equally fascinating and important projects is Starlink.
Starlink is a satellite internet service provider operated by SpaceX. Satellite internet is different from the more common land-based internet. There are multiple forms of land-based internet such as cable or fiber, and all land-based internet services are transmitted near Earth’s surface. Satellite internet, on the other hand, is transmitted through Earth’s atmosphere rather than near the surface. When someone uses satellite internet, a data request is sent to a satellite dish. The satellite dish then sends the data request to a satellite, and the satellite sends signals back down to the satellite dish. The satellite dish is attached to a modem and router, which interprets the information and sends it back to the device. Latency is the amount of time it takes for a data packet to travel between two places. Generally, land-based internet has lower latency than satellite internet since devices using land-based internet only have to travel between a device and the closest cell tower rather than between a device and a satellite. Even with these weaknesses, satellite internet, especially Starlink, still has very important benefits.
It’s extremely difficult for rural and remote areas to receive land-based internet because they’re so far away from internet infrastructure, such as cell towers. This means that in order to receive land-based internet in rural and remote areas, new internet infrastructure would need to be built. However, building new internet infrastructure is too expensive for internet providers since rural and remote areas don’t have enough customers to compensate for the high construction costs. This is where satellite internet providers such as Starlink come into play. Satellite internet doesn’t require internet infrastructure to be built other than installing a satellite dish, modem, and router, making the internet more accessible to those in rural regions. In urban areas where there is plenty of internet infrastructure already built, however, satellite internet services including Starlink are suboptimal because they are slower than land-based internet.
Starlink currently provides internet coverage to 40 countries around the world, and there are many countries currently on the waitlist to gain access to Starlink services. Starlink first started development in 2015 and launched its first satellites on May 23, 2019. There are 3,558 Starlink satellites currently in orbit, and almost all of them are currently operational. Starlink has sent this many satellites into orbit throughout 70 trips made by the reusable rocket, Falcon 9. Starlink has stated that they plan to launch a total of around 30,000 satellites into orbit in order to provide global coverage.
So what’s so special about Starlink compared to other satellite internet providers? One huge difference about Starlink is the number of satellites it operates and how far from Earth these satellites are located. Most satellite internet providers have a handful of satellites that orbit in high Earth orbit (HEO) located at around 22,236 miles above Earth’s surface. This is because HEO is a geostationary orbit. Objects in geostationary orbit travel at the same speed as the Earth rotates, meaning that satellites in HEO hover over the same area all the time. For instance, a satellite in HEO above New York would stay above New York no matter the time of day. In contrast, Starlink has many satellites that all orbit in low Earth orbit (LEO) or around 342 miles above Earth’s surface. Satellites in HEO are so high up that they can provide coverage over huge areas, minimizing costs for the company. Because Starlink satellites aren’t in geostationary orbit and aren’t high enough to provide coverage over massive areas, Starlink needs more satellites to provide the same coverage as companies that use HEO satellites. In return, Starlink satellites have extremely low latency compared to HEO satellites because they’re so close to the ground.
The upside of this lesser land coverage is that most satellite internet providers only use a handful of satellites that each cover a large area, resulting in the loss of internet over a large region if a disruption or technical problem were to occur in one satellite. In this case, since Starlink uses many satellites, a technical issue in one satellite would not produce as devastating of an effect as land-based satellites would.
Starlink satellites also include many features that make them unique. For starters, a Starlink satellite uses a single solar array, or a collection of solar panels, to power itself, making Starlink satellites self-sufficient in terms of energy generation. Since only a single solar array is used rather than multiple solar arrays in various areas, the simplicity of the design allows for easier manufacturing of Starlink satellites. In addition, Starlink satellites can move without human intervention, which works in combination with the satellite’s ion thrusters. These ion thrusters are used for mobility and are powered by krypton ions, which are highly effective at generating propulsion. This is beneficial since it helps remove human error from satellite maneuvering.
Starlink recently received more media attention after Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, tweeted at Elon Musk on February 26, 2022, two days after Russia invaded Ukraine, saying, “We ask you to provide Ukraine with Starlink stations.” Fedorov requested Musk to provide Starlink’s service to Ukraine after a national internet outage and Musk complied, expanding Starlink’s coverage to include Ukraine. Musk and countries such as the U.S., U.K., and Poland have helped pay for some of the Starlink services used in Ukraine. Starlink internet has been and still is currently being used by many Ukrainian citizens along with the Ukrainian government and military. “[Starlink] has been a turning point in our survival,” the Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister, Olga Stefanishyna, said.
Starlink has proven itself to be an extremely useful service that has many upsides compared to other satellite internet providers. As more and more Starlink satellites become operational and as the price of Starlink subscriptions drops, Starlink will most likely become the leading satellite internet provider. With a goal of 30,000 satellites providing global coverage, Starlink will transform our planet to connect even the most remote places to the rest of the world.