Earlier this week, SpaceX founder Elon Musk confirmed that the company had launched 60 little satellites into the low Earth orbit, the first step in Musk’s plans for his Starlink Internet Service. The internet service claims to be capable of connecting the globe to offer broadband internet by 2020.
Starlink plans to provide broadband internet access globally using a constellation of 12,000 low-orbit satellites in three different orbital shells. The company launched Falcon 9 reusable rocket loaded with 60 satellites each weighing 227 kg on May 23 at 10:30pm EDT (May 24 at 8:00 am IST) from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
The whole Starlink constellation will orbit Earth 500 km to 1300 km above the planet up to 65 times closer than the geosynchronous satellites. In November 2016, SpaceX filed an application with the FCC for a license to operate this non-geostationary satellite constellation. SpaceX will be deploying 4,400 satellites to low-Earth orbit and another 7,500 in very-low Earth orbit. It has indicated that Phase 1 of the program will deploy 1600 satellites to an altitude of 550 km to avoid adding to the space debris problem.
How the Starlink Internet Service will work
Once SpaceX completes its Starlink network, users will need a $200 receiver to access the internet, which will be small enough to fit in homes, the roof of cars, ships, aeroplanes etc.
Starlink will send messages via a series of ground stations that will transmit information through radio waves to the satellites in the orbit. The satellites will then relay the messages using lasers in a way that it reaches the one above the recipient’s destination. Here the data will be beamed down to the station using radio waves again.
Starlink network challenges
Launching 12,000 satellites into Earth’s orbit will increase the space debris and there will be chances of the system colliding with other debris. In case of a satellite malfunction, there will be a possibility it might hit other satellites and start a chain reaction.
Prof Mark Handley of University College London created a simulation to deploy 4,425 satellites which would provide maximum efficiency with minimum chances of a collision.
Phase 1 will deploy a total of 1600 satellites in 32 orbital planes where each plane will carry 50 satellites each at 650 degrees inclinations. Phase 2 will put another 1600 satellites in 32 orbital planes with each plane carrying 50 satellites each at 50.8 degrees inclinations.
Phase 3 will set 400 satellites in 8 orbitals planes (50 satellites per plane) at 74 degrees inclinations, 450 satellites in six orbital planes (75 satellites per plane) at 70 degrees inclination, and 375 satellites into 5 orbital planes (75 satellites per plane) at 81 degrees inclinations. Reportedly, Starlink satellites are capable of tracking orbital debris and autonomously avoid a collision.
Each satellite of the Starlink system has a life span of five years, after which it will burn in Earth’s atmosphere. But it also means that SpaceX will have to launch new satellites every five years. However, as a report on MarketWatch pointed out, the service will face the problem of network capacity, especially in densely populated areas. According to the report, one satellite is able to handle 1,000 users streaming 4K video at the same time.