Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites and the future of the Internet

By | August 9, 2023

  • Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched its first batch of Starlink satellites several years ago.
  • Musk said he plans to create a constellation of up to 42,000 satellites.
  • The Internet service is ideal for remote sites and played a role in Ukraine’s early efforts against Russia.

Video by Michelle Yan Huang, Bob Hunt and Dave Mosher

Starlink is a satellite internet system operated by Elon Musk’s rocket company, SpaceX.

Musk first expressed interest in building a satellite constellation in 2014. At the time, the venture was called WorldVu, but the billionaire later scrapped the venture in favor of launching a satellite Internet system via SpaceX and filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission in 2016 under the name “Starlink.”

Musk has said the name was inspired by John Green’s book “The Fault in Our Stars”.

Spacex launched its first round of 60 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit in May 2019 on one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets. Today, the company has over 4,000 of its satellites in orbit, and Musk has said he eventually wants to send up to 42,000 satellites into space.

SpaceX uses Falcon 9 rockets to transport batches of about 60 Starlink satellites at a time.
Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Unlike most satellite Internet services, Starlink satellites operate in low Earth orbit, reducing the delay between when the data is transmitted to the receiver, the company says.

Starlink services

SpaceX says its service has download speeds between 25 and 220 Mbps, with most users reporting speeds above 100 Mbps, as well as upload speeds between 5 Mbps and 20 Mbps — speeds ideal for internet activities like gaming and streaming.

The service costs about $599 for the equipment and $110 per month in the US. Prices vary based on the user’s location. The Starlink service is available in 48 US states and over 55 countries, according to SpaceX. The company said in May that it had over 1.5 million subscribers.

Starlink is primarily aimed at users in more remote areas, and the company has started providing its service to cruise lines and airlines over the past year. The company also launched a $135-a-month Internet plan aimed at RV owners last year.

In 2022, Musk announced that SpaceX would partner with T-Mobile to offer the company’s users access to the Starlink satellite service and “eliminate dead zones around the world.”

SpaceX’s vice president of Starlink commercial sales, Jonathan Hofeller, said earlier this year that the company plans to begin testing the mobile service within the year.

Military use

Starlink was instrumental in helping Ukraine overcome Russian cyber attacks last year when it launched its unprovoked attack on Ukraine.

Musk sent thousands of Starlink internet kits to Ukraine during the war’s outbreak.

Although earlier this year SpaceX decided to limit Ukraine’s Starlink use to operating drones. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said in February that the service was “never intended to be armed.”

The rocket company also unveiled a military-focused branch of Starlink late last year, called “Starshield.” The spinoff project is aimed at government agencies and will use Starlink’s “technology and launch capability to support national security efforts.”

Light pollution and collisions

As SpaceX continues to grow its constellation of satellites, astronomers have continued to raise concerns about how Starlink will affect light pollution in space, as well as the potential for satellite collisions.

The company has tried to address concerns about light pollution by upgrading Starlink satellites to reduce their brightness.

NASA said in 2022 that Musk’s plans to launch about 42,000 satellites could disrupt its missions, generate space debris and increase the risk of collisions.

At the time, SpaceX was quick to address NASA’s concerns, saying the reliability of its satellite network is greater than 99%, adding that it has implemented an “advanced collision avoidance system” that performs evasive maneuvers if there are a “greater than 1/100,000 probability of collision.”

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