According to the United Nations, nearly half of the world’s population does not have access to the internet. In an age when most developed countries take internet connectivity for granted, an even lower percentage of people in developing countries lack access to the internet. Starlink’s goal is to solve this problem by avoiding traditional internet infrastructure such as fiber optic cables, which have yet to reach remote locations, particularly in developing countries.
When the majority of the Starlink satellites are in place, they will blanket the globe, providing internet access from virtually anywhere, including the Sahara Desert, Congo rainforest, Amazon jungle, and Antarctic regions, as well as tropical islands in the middle of nowhere. Beta tests have been conducted, and the entire system is on its way to consumer readiness — but not quite there yet.
Starlink satellites are difficult to shut down because they receive and transmit signals from space. When Elon Musk responded to Ukraine’s call for assistance by activating Starlink internet services to aid in the fight against the Russian invasion, both the system’s strengths and weaknesses were exposed. While internet signals sent from space are extremely difficult for enemy forces (or government entities) to intercept, Starlink also has some rather strict hardware placement and movement guidelines.
Starlink satellites are in low earth orbit
Starlink made history in 2018 when it launched its first prototype satellites into space. Following that, the private company, which is a division of Space X, launched more satellites into orbit each year — usually within a few months. To put this in context, between 2018 and 2022, it launched over 2,900 satellites into orbit.
But Starlink isn’t done yet; the FCC recently approved its plan to deploy over 40,000 satellites over the next decade. That’s a big number, and if Starlink meets its goal, it could have more satellites in space than any other entity on Earth. The real reason SpaceX is launching so many Starlink satellites into space is to provide internet speeds that rival satellites.
According to Bloomberg, in order to reduce latency, Starlink satellites must be as close to the ground as possible. Starlink satellites are located in low earth orbit (LEO), which is between 311 and 1,243 miles above the ground, as opposed to traditional satellites, which orbit the earth up to 22,223 miles above the surface. Low earth orbit satellites travel faster than medium earth orbit satellites, circumnavigating the globe in two hours or less. This means they cover a smaller area while moving extremely quickly in orbit, and blanketing the entire planet requires thousands of LEO satellites.
They could collide with other satellites in orbit
Collisions with other objects in space become more likely as Starlink launches more satellites into orbit. “The number of encounters picked up by the Socrates database has more than doubled, and we are now in a situation where Starlink accounts for half of all encounters,” said Hugh Lewis, professor and head of the University of Southampton’s Astronautic Research Group (via Space.com).
Despite the possibility of a collision, there have only been three recorded incidents of satellites colliding in orbit (none of which involved Starlink). This is because the United States Space Command monitors all satellite paths, and close approach reports are submitted via Space Track to prevent a collision from occurring. In addition, to avoid potential collisions, Starlink satellites are outfitted with autonomous collision avoidance systems. Although SpaceX technology has not yet figured out how to keep launched Starlink satellites from being destroyed by geomagnetic storms, the company assures the public that debris will not be an issue.
They could interfere with astronomy
Astronomers also expressed concerns that Starlink satellites, among other things, could interfere with telescope feedback. “The surfaces of these satellites are frequently made of highly reflective metal, and reflections from the Sun in the hours after sunset and before sunrise cause them to appear as slow-moving dots in the night sky,” the International Astronomical Union (IAU) stated in a June 2019 statement. The IAU stated that “aggregate radio signals emitted from satellite constellations can still threaten astronomical observations at radio wavelengths.”
Starlink responded by developing new satellites with non-reflective coating and visors to avoid interfering with astronomical telescopes (via CNET). However, according to Science, SpaceX has yet to find a solution to the radio signal interference.
We anticipate that SpaceX will launch thousands of satellites over the next decade to improve internet access in remote areas. However, Starlink will not be the only sheriff in space, as Amazon plans to launch thousands of satellites into orbit.