Starlink, SpaceX’s ambitious plan to bring high-speed internet to practically anywhere in the world, is about to take shape.
On Wednesday, the company plans to launch 60 test satellites to help develop its planned giant constellation. Elon Musk, the CEO behind the plan, could help redefine how people think about internet access — no longer tied to fixed lines, where satellite internet moves from a last-resort curiosity to a viable service for tens of millions. With the FCC abolishing net neutrality, Starlink also has an opportunity to save it for its customers — or continue to ignore the concept as terrestrial ISPs have done. There’s lots of discussion, but we don’t know yet.
Starlink is a planned constellation of 12,000 satellites, eclipsing the size of existing satellite internet systems, operating at a relatively low orbit. Musk has claimed that unlike other systems, latency will be low enough to power the lightning-fast response times necessary for video games. Using a ground terminal, customers could get connected from practically anywhere in the world with a view to the constellation.
The prospect is so enticing it could eclipse SpaceX’s current revenue streams and rapidly transform the company — providing even more funds for flying to Mars and making humans a multi-planetary species.
SpaceX Starlink: When is the Launch Date?
SpaceX is expected to launch 60 satellites on Wednesday at 10:30 p.m. Eastern from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Weather conditions were at 70 percent favorable the Sunday prior to the launch. The booster will attempt to land on the Of Course I Still Love You drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
Musk shared an image of the Falcon 9 packed with the 60 satellites ready to go:
When compared with the Tesla Roadster that Musk sent up on the Falcon Heavy’s maiden voyage, the sheer scale becomes clear:
Unfortunately, it appears these satellites won’t be used for the final constellation. SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said at the Satellite 2019 conference in Washington, D.C. on May 7 that the first launch would lack the intersat links present in future crafts, meaning these 60 will only be used for tests.
“They’re capable but there’s no intersatellite links on it,” Shotwell said at the event. “I call them ‘test class’ satellites. The antennas are pretty hot on these things, they are very capable systems.”
Although they’re test-class crafts, they should provide more information about how the constellation will work than previous trials. Musk confirmed that the crafts are “production design, unlike our earlier Tintin demo sats.” The company previously launched two demo satellites in February 2018 to communicate with six ground stations.
If successful, it could pave the way for multiple Starlink launches later this year. Shotwell stated at the same conference that SpaceX could hold between two and six Starlink launches this year, depending on the results from the May 15 launch.
Once SpaceX has completed a few launches, its network could soon take shape. Musk said on Sunday via Twitter that around six more launches of 60 satellites could be enough for “minor” coverage, while 12 launches would be enough for “moderate” coverage. That means by the end of this year, SpaceX could have a basic constellation up and running.
SpaceX Starlink: How Does It Work?
The system links to a ground terminal around the size of a pizza box that communicates with satellites in the sky, using steered antenna beams to lock in. The company applied for permission in February to install one million of these terminals on Earth.
The satellites use lasers to communicate with each other. Mark Handley, a professor of networked systems at University College London, previously explained to Inverse that this could make communications between two points on the planet up to 50 percent faster, as the light would move faster through the vacuum than through fiber optic glass cables.
SpaceX plans to launch 4.409 satellites in its initial constellation. Each one weighs around 850 pounds. Around 1,584 of these will orbit 550 kilometers above the surface of the Earth, while the rest will run at 1,150 kilometers. The company was granted permission for this setup from the FCC in May.
As for space junk, the company claimed to the FCC that there is “zero” chance of pieces hitting anyone on Earth, as the satellites are expected to burn up through the atmosphere.
SpaceX Starlink: What is the Price for Starlink Internet?
As Starlink has already slipped from its initial plans, it’s perhaps understandable that SpaceX has not yet released definitive pricing. FCC chairman Ajit Pai’s support for the plan draws to mind net neutrality horror stories, where firms charge higher prices for faster access to preferred sites.
Starlink could save consumers billions, even if they don’t choose to go with SpaceX for internet. A BroadbandNow report claims such constellations could save American households up to $30 billion per year. The logic is that increased competition will drive prices down: around 104 million Americans have one wired broadband provider in their area, and prices cost around $68 per month. Around 75 million have two choices, and they pay around $59 per month. The 14 million with five or more choices pay just $47, so adding Starlink into the mix could push people into the next lower bracket as the competition increases:
Existing satellite offerings come to around $50 per month for service. If SpaceX wants to compete with other providers, a price around this area may not be unreasonable.
SpaceX Starlink: Who is Competing With Starlink?
SpaceX has a number of competitors vying to kickstart their giant satellite constellations. OneWeb, which launched its first six satellites back in February, is aiming for up to 900 satellites with a goal of switching on by 2021.
Another plan by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos would send 3,236 satellites up as part of Project Kuiper. SpaceX and Blue Origin both have similar end goals of using their current projects to fuel space colonization, but Bezos envisions floating structures orbiting the Earth rather than cities on Mars. The success of one internet constellation over another could power these visions and bring them closer to reality.
Another factor working against SpaceX is time. The FCC gave the firm until March 29, 2024 to launch 50 percent of its planned constellation. Around three years later, the firm needs to complete its constellation.
Musk has just eight years to potentially kickstart the future of internet access.