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STARLINK SATELLITE CONSTELLATION

 

SpaceX is the world’s number one aerospace company and manufacturer founded by South-African born American industrial engineer, co-founder & CEO of Tesla, founder of Neuralink and The Boring Company : Elon Musk

As the world’s leading provider of launch services and the only provider with an orbital class reusable rocket, SpaceX has tremendous experience in rocketry, spacecraft and on-orbit operations thanks to its vertically integrated business strategy. Leveraging its experience in building rockets and spacecraft, SpaceX is now rapidly developing the world’s most advanced broadband internet system, Starlink Satellite Constellation.

Today, it is impossible to imagine a world without internet, the core pillar of the modern information society. And still, 37% of the global population do not have access to it.

Global Internet Map: https://global-internet-map-2022.telegeography.com

Global Internet Infrastructure Map: https://www.infrapedia.com/app

Seeing the huge potential of the global satellite communication market, SpaceX founder, chief engineer and CEO, Elon Musk came up with a revolutionary space project of making hi-tech satellites to provide global satellite internet service from low Earth orbit (LEO).

The project would fund his long-stated goal of making life interplanetary and establishing a self-sustainable city on Mars. Not surprising, considering that it was his love for the Red Planet that resulted in the birth of SpaceX.

In January 2015, SpaceX announced its plans to build an interconnected internet network with thousands of satellites, designed to deliver low-cost, high-speed, broadband internet service from low Earth orbit (LEO) to customers anywhere on the planet, especially to those in the most remote parts.

Elon Musk named his mega project “Starlink” after the inspiring novel “The Fault in Our Stars”.

 

Starlink Project

 

Being closer to Earth means the satellites cannot cover the entire globe like those placed in geostationary orbit (GEO), which is about 35,000 km away from Earth. Hence the Starlink project requires a mega-constellation of nearly 12,000 internet communication satellites to provide simultaneous global coverage.

Unlike other satellites, “Starlinks” are very small and more like flying routers. They are designed and built for a highly reliable performance throughout their five-year life after which they get propulsively deorbited.

SpaceX intends to gradually replace old and inactive satellites with upgraded ones that use latest technology for superior performance.

Thus, in 2019, SpaceX applied for authorization to launch and operate an additional 30,000 satellites for the second generation of Starlink constellation.

 

Once fully operational, the 42000-strong Starlink constellation will resemble a fish net with evenly spaced out satellites orbiting across the Earth in a tight-knit formation.

It will provide permanent global coverage, such that at any time everywhere on Earth at least one satellite is visible. This will result in high-speed internet access for everyone, anywhere and particularly for those living in rural and remote areas.

Back on Earth, the Starlink user terminal (satellite dish or antenna) will automatically point and connect to the satellites closest to it, delivering uninterrupted high-speed internet access to the user.

 

Satellite vs Ground-based Broadband

 

Satellite internet has been around for quite a while through companies like the United States’ HughesNet and Viasat, Luxembourg-based SES, etc. But these companies provide internet services through single satellites operating in the geostationary orbit (GEO), about 35,000 km away from Earth. Large distance means long travelling time, which results in poor internet service at slow speeds with high latency.

Orbits: https://www.esa.int/Enabling_Support/Space_Transportation/Types_of_orbits

Latency (also called ping or lag) is the data transfer delay or the time taken for a signal to travel from your computer to a remote server and back. E.g. the time measured from the moment the user clicks on a link to view a web page till the moment it is displayed on the screen.

Latency is measured in milliseconds (ms). Geostationary satellite internet has a high latency of approximately 594–612 ms, while fibre-optic cable offers a low latency of 10-15 ms.

DSL and cable have a latency of 24–42 ms and 15–27 ms respectively.

High latency is the cause of frequent gaps in satellite phone conversations.

On the other hand, ground-based fibre-optic broadband internet service providers are able to deliver high-speed internet access, especially in urban areas, where infrastructure can be easily installed. But their expansion is limited by geographical and political constraints.

However, launching internet communication satellites into space is easier and helps reach far-flung places faster and efficiently than ground-based internet through physically laid fibre-optic cables.

Starlink – World’s most advanced optical communication system for high-speed broadband internet service

 

As against ground-based broadband internet, Starlink satellite internet network can easily reach places where internet access has been unreliable, too expensive, or completely unavailable.

While traditional communication satellites operate from 35,000 km away from Earth, Starlink satellites are at about 550 km in low Earth orbit (LEO), which is almost 60 times closer to the Earth’s surface.

With less distance for its signals to travel, Starlink satellites can carry large amounts of information rapidly to any point on Earth at very high speeds (50-500 megabits per second) and with very low latency of around 20–40 milliseconds, even over the oceans and in extremely hard-to-reach places where fibre-optic cables can be expensive to lay down.

That means Starlink can deliver super-efficient broadband data services for video calls, online gaming, streaming, high-frequency trading and other high data rate activities that are not possible on other satellite broadband systems.

Distance is usually the main cause of latency. The distance between your computer and the servers your computer is requesting information from, matters.

As in the below image, suppose Server A in London sends data to Server B in Johannesburg.

Round-trip time (RTT) is the duration in milliseconds (ms) it takes for your request (e.g. hitting enter on a Google search) to reach a server, and then for that server’s response to get back to your computer. The amount of latency on this path is the difference between the time it is sent and the time it is received.

In this image, the current internet RTT is high at 190ms. Compared to it, fibre-optic broadband RTT is low at 90 ms. But Starlink (once the first generation constellation is complete) has the lowest RTT at 81-82ms.

The second generation laser-linked Starlink constellation which is to be at lower altitudes (between 328 and 614 km) will improve performance with a latency as low as 8 milliseconds. Light travels 40% faster in a vacuum than in fibre-optic cables.

 

 

Satellites in orbital planes

 

“Starlinks” are typically placed in sets of complementary orbital planes and connect to globally distributed ground stations.

The satellite deployment for the first generation 12000-satellite Starlink constellation is planned in two phases, each having different orbital shells.

Each orbital shell is a thin layer of satellites evenly covering the entire globe. The shells differ by orbital inclination (the angle between a given orbit and the Earth’s equator) and orbital altitude (the distance from the orbit to the ground).

Of its first-generation 12,000 satellites, SpaceX has permission to operate the first phase of 4,400 satellites on the Ku (12-18GHz) and Ka (26-40GHz) Bands, and the second phase of 7,600 satellites on the V-Band (40-75GHz).

https://www.esa.int/Applications/Telecommunications_Integrated_Applications/Satellite_frequency_bands

The U.S. regulatory authority, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted SpaceX the license to operate the first phase of satellites in March 2018.

The license triggered an important countdown as the FCC requires the entire constellation of 12,000 satellites to be completed by November 2027.

While half of the first phase has to be complete by March 2024 and the remaining by March 2027, half of the second phase has to be completed by November 2024. Failure to comply with any of the dates could result in SpaceX losing its dedicated frequency band.

The first phase has five orbital shells at four different orbital inclinations or angles to the equator:

Shell 1 has 1584 satellites, with 22 satellites in each of 72 evenly spaced orbital planes. This shell has been completed with v1.0 satellites and serves customers between 52 degrees and -52 degrees latitude, covering 80% of the Earth surface.

Shell 2 will have 720 satellites, with 20 satellites in each of 36 evenly spaced orbital planes. This will expand coverage to areas such as Alaska and Northern Europe and will result 94% coverage of the Earth.

Shell 3 will have 348 satellites, with 58 satellites in each of 6 evenly spaced orbital planes. It will extend coverage over the polar regions

Shell 4 will have 1584 satellites, and like Shell 1, it will also have 72 evenly spaced orbital planes with 22 satellites in each plane. This “Group 4” shell will greatly increase the number of satellites in view for customers in mid to low latitudes and drastically increase the bandwidth of the constellation. It is currently being filled (with v1.5 satellites) alongside Shell 2.

Shell 5 will have 172 satellites in the same 97.6 degree like Shell 3. But unlike Shell 3, it will have 4 evenly spaced orbital planes with 43 satellites in each plane.

72% of the Phase-1 Starlinks (3168 of the 4408 satellites) are assigned to Shell 1 and Shell 4, where SpaceX has almost exclusively focused since it began operational launches in November 2019.

SpaceX began launching Shell 4 or “Group 4” in November 2021 and has sustained an unprecedented pace since then.

In July 2022, “Group 3” operational launches to the polar orbit with v1.5 satellites will be started. This will connect Starlink users at the extreme ends of the Earth.

The second phase has three orbital shells at three different orbital inclinations:

The second-generation Starlink constellation configuration:

 

 

Developing Satellites

 

SpaceX is the only satellite operator with the ability to launch its own satellites as needed. With frequent, low-cost launches, Starlink satellites are constantly updated with the newest technology.

SpaceX pursues a strategy of vertical integration so the design, development and manufacturing of Starlink satellites, user terminals and gateways is done in-house. This is highly beneficial to the company which constantly updates and improves its products to maximize performance at minimum costs.

Starlink satellites are developed and produced by SpaceX at its facility in Redmond, Washington.

The satellites are interconnected via gateways on the ground (or ground stations) for telemetry, tracking and control.

The ground station is the location on the ground equipped with appropriate equipment for satellite communication. It links satellites in space with ground-based internet data centres.

The communication between the satellite and the gateway is enabled only when the satellite is stabilized in its own space slot and is visible to the ground station or gateway.

To ensure global coverage, gateways are positioned around the world, and on ships at sea too. A user terminal (or antenna) connects to a Starlink satellite as it passes overhead, which in turn links them into the nearest gateway. So for the user to get internet service, there has to be a gateway or ground station within roughly 800 km (500 miles) of their location.

In February 2019, SpaceX formed a sibling company, SpaceX Services, Inc., to license the manufacture and deployment of up to 1,000,000 fixed satellite ground or Earth stations that will communicate with its Starlink system.

 

 

Space lasers

 

The story of satellite communications is a tale of the search for more bandwidth.

Bandwidth is a range of frequencies within a continuous band of frequencies, measured in hertz.

Lower frequency band means lower throughput (or the amount of data transmitted during a specified time, measured in bits per second), lower spectrum band, larger antenna size, but less susceptibility to rain fading.

Higher frequency means higher throughput, larger spectrum band, smaller antenna size, but more susceptibility to rain fading.

https://www.esa.int/Applications/Telecommunications_Integrated_Applications/Satellite_frequency_bands

Each telecommunications system is allocated a portion of the spectrum for its use. While the amount of data used is increasing every year, the amount of available radio waves is limited. This had led to a bottleneck of radio frequencies.

Think of it as the problem of sipping a thick milkshake with a regular straw. You will struggle to get the milkshake through the narrow straw. But if you use the wide straw meant for sipping milkshake, it will be smooth sailing.

https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/heo/scan/spectrum/txt_electromagnetic_spectrum.html

The visible light spectrum is the next chapter for satellite communications. With frequencies thousands of times higher than radio frequency waves, visible light can carry orders of magnitude more data.

The highest frequencies of all in the electromagnetic spectrum are in the Visible Light end of the spectrum. It has 10,000 times higher frequencies than the highest radio frequency Ka –Band. Moreover, Visible Light is not regulated or licensed.

One of the main goals of Starlink has been to lower latency further down. Laser technology helps in this situation. Lasers provide immense bandwidth, thanks to advances in technology that allow more precise control of a beam.

In July 2021, Elon Musk stated that laser link technology can reduce ‘data transfer delay’ by up to 50%, due to the higher communication speed and a shorter route it has to travel than the fibre optic submarine cables.

Laser link technology lowers latency as data is routed around the constellation (between satellites), rather than between Earth and space.

Fewer “hops” between the ground and orbit reduces the time it takes for a signal to travel between destinations. This way users will be provided with faster internet speeds from 100 gigabits per seconds to even 1 terabit per second.

With laser links, satellites can talk to each other directly at the speed of light, which is faster in the vacuum of space than in fibre-optic cables. This allows service even when ground stations are not in range and increases data transmission speed for long-distance traffic.

The number of ground stations needed for global coverage is reduced. Ground stations are expensive and constrained by geographical and political factors as to where they can be positioned on Earth.

Originally, SpaceX planned to deploy its satellite with laser inter-satellite links that would let each satellite communicate with one another. But at that time, interlinking satellites with lasers was too expensive and challenging to manufacture in volume. It also meant increased satellite mass and power consumption.

Nevertheless, SpaceX expected it to roll out in future generations of satellites. Hence the trial batch of V0.9 satellites as well as the first batch of Starlink V1.0 satellites were launched without this ability in 2018 and 2019 respectively.

Starlink v1.5 satellites have space lasers which encode data as pulses of light.

On 24 January, 2021, the first batch of 10 Starlink v1.5 satellites were launched to polar orbit, doing away with the need to have ground stations over the poles.

Eight months later, in September 2021, SpaceX launched its first entire batch of 51 laser-equipped Starlink satellites.

Since the operational second generation Starlink v1.5 satellites are interconnected with lasers, their signals cover the entire Earth surface.

 

 

Satellite features

 

Manufacturing its own satellites is very advantageous for SpaceX. Starlink satellites are expected to be outdated after 5 years of operation and will have to be periodically replaced by newer-generation satellites. Large scale production reduce the cost of each Starlink satellite. The short lifespan not only reduces production cost of satellites but also enables rapid innovation with changing customer demands.

Less mass, more compact

Both Starlink v 1.0 and v1.5 satellites have a compact, flat-panel design which minimises volume, allowing for a dense launch stack to take full advantage of the launch capabilities of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. Though small in size, each satellite is loaded with high-tech communication and cost-saving technology.

Each Starlink version 1.0 satellite weighs 260 kilograms (573 lbs). The flat-panel design helps fit up to 60 Starlink v1.0 satellites into the Falcon 9’s 5.2 meter wide payload fairing.

From 13 September, 2021, when the first operational version 1.5 satellites with “laser inter-satellite links” were launched by SpaceX, each Starlink mission has flown a maximum of 53 satellites at a time. The v1.5 satellites weigh 310 kg (683 lbs).

Ion Propulsion Systems

Starlink satellites are the world’s first operational satellites using Hall thrusters powered by krypton gas. Krypton although less efficient, is 10 times cheaper than the normally used xenon gas.

A Hall thruster uses a magnetic field effect to accelerate ions (or charged particles) to high speeds, producing thrust for movement.

The thruster (or small engine) moves the satellite to its target orbit and maintains it. It enables the satellite to manoeuvre in space, to move to a higher or lower orbit and to deorbit the satellite at the end of its useful life.

Autonomous collision avoidance

Starlink satellites are equipped with an autonomous collision avoidance system, which utilizes the U.S. Department of Defence (DOD)’s debris tracking database to autonomously avoid collisions with space junk and other spacecraft.

This capability reduces human error and provides exceptional reliability, far exceeding the industry standard.

Star Tracker

Starlink satellites can track their position using GPS and a SpaceX-developed Star Tracker system which has custom-built navigation sensors to survey the stars and determine each satellite’s location, attitude, and orientation.

This enables the satellites to steer its antennas more precisely, thereby ensuring precision in broadband communication. And also automatically avoid orbital debris and other satellites.

Optical Space Lasers

In September 2021, SpaceX introduced its Starlink v1.5 satellites with optical space lasers (Laser-Inter-Satellite Links), a critical part of Starlink’s unique constellation design, which will allow the satellite to transmit data without local ground stations and provide global coverage. These advanced laser technology satellites will replace the earlier Starlink v1.0 satellites.

Antennas

An antenna is a metallic structure that captures and/or transmits radio electromagnetic waves.

Each Starlink satellite has four powerful phased array antennas, for high bandwidth and low-latency communication, and two parabolic antennas.

A phased array antenna has the feature of electronic steering to change the direction and shape of radiated signals, without any physical movement of the antenna.

A parabolic antenna is a bowl-shaped antenna that moves horizontally and vertically in order to capture the incoming signal and focus it into a narrow beam directed at a single point.

Singular Solar Array

Satellites need power to operate once they are launched. Solar panels help transform sunlight into electrical power which charges the satellite batteries. 

 

Having only one solar panel simplifies the manufacturing process and reduces costs. One panel is much easier and faster to build and cheaper for mass production than two.

Two arrays means more mass in orbit, which means more fuel for the thrusters to manoeuvre and de-orbit them. Two arrays also mean more weight and fewer satellites to launch at a time.

Starlink’s flat design with a single folding solar panel made of standardized cells makes it easy to stack as many of them as can fit in the rocket fairing.

The satellite deployment process begins when the Falcon 9 upper stage releases the entire stack of satellites which slowly spread out over time.

The main limiting factor in launching the satellites is not the rocket’s payload capacity but the current size of the rocket fairing.

SpaceX’s next generation Starship, which is under development, has a significantly larger payload bay. Moreover, Starship is fully reusable so launch costs are expected to be at least five times lower than those of Falcon 9.

Last month, Elon Musk disclosed that SpaceX’s third-generation Starlink v2.0 satellite would far surpass the performance of the current v1.0 and v1.5 satellites.

Production of the Starlink v2.0 satellite is already underway. Each Starlink v2.0 satellite will be about 7 metres (23 ft) long and weigh about 1.25 tons (2750 lb). Starlink v1.0 and v1.5 satellites weigh around 260 and 310 kilograms, respectively, meaning that Starlink v2.0 satellites will be about a bit more than four times heavier than v1.5 and a bit less than five times heavier than v1.0.

The next generation Starlink constellation will see Starship launching an entire orbital plane (one ring of satellites spaced evenly around the Earth) of 110-120 v2.0 satellites in one go.

Performance-wise, while each Falcon 9 launch of 60 260-kilogram Starlink v1.0 satellites added about 1080 Gbps of instantaneous bandwidth to the constellation, a Starship launch of 120 1250-kilogram Starlink v2.0 satellites can add around 19,000 Gbps (19 terabits per second).

Starship can offer around 10 times as much performance to LEO as Falcon 9, which means that a single Starship launch could theoretically expand total network capacity roughly 20 times more than one Falcon 9 launch.

Challenges of operating in LEO

 

Besides active satellites, objects orbiting around the Earth include spent rocket stages, small and large pieces of debris, broken satellites, etc. Depending on their orbit, it can take months or even thousands of years for the objects to deorbit on their own.

Natural deorbit from altitudes higher than 600 km poses significant higher orbital debris risk for decades and that too at each lower orbital altitude that the satellite or debris (generated from collision events from satellites flying at those high altitudes) passes through as it deorbits. This applies to commercial satellites orbiting higher above 1000 km, where it requires hundreds of years for spacecraft to naturally deorbit if they fail prior to deorbit or are not deorbited by active debris removal.

Starlink satellites operate in “self-cleaning” orbits, where non-manoeuvrable satellites and debris lose altitude and deorbit due to atmospheric drag within 5 to 6 years, and often sooner.

Operating in a low altitude, high atmospheric drag environment is incredibly difficult and requires a significant investment to maintain controlled flight as long as possible prior to deorbit.

SpaceX is the only commercial operator with specialized satellite engineering expertise to create the hi-tech “Starlinks” that move in a controlled way at challenging low altitudes of less than 350 km, using their sustainable electric propulsion thruster (or small engine) to boost them to the operational altitude of approximately 550 km where they begin working on their mission.

“Starlinks” are highly reliable, manoeuvrable satellites that have to pass SpaceX’s health check at their deployed orbit before they climb to their operational orbit.

By deploying the satellites into such low altitudes, in the rare case where any “Starlink” does not pass initial system checkouts, it is quickly and actively deorbited using its thruster or passively by atmospheric drag.

Live Starlink Satellite and Coverage Map: https://satellitemap.space/index.html

It will burn up in the atmosphere within a short period of time and will not contribute to the problem of space debris. This process is much faster than the 25 years currently required by international standards.

On 3 February, 2022, 49 Starlink satellites were successfully launched to orbit, but a day later, a geomagnetic storm above Earth pushed up the density of the atmosphere, increasing the drag on the satellites which led to an early death of nearly 40 satellites.

Despite such challenges, SpaceX firmly believes that a low insertion altitude is key for ensuring responsible space operations. The incident showed that Starlinks pose zero collision risk with other objects, whether they are another satellite, a piece of space debris or a non-functional Starlink and that they completely disintegrate upon atmospheric re-entry leaving no debris to hit the Earth’s surface where they might hurt someone or damage property.

The constellation will gradually be upgraded with the addition of heavier satellites that are capable of transmitting more information, and which are placed in longer-lasting, higher orbits.

When a Twitter user asked Elon Musk if there was a way to collect old satellite debris to balance or reduce debris, he replied:

 

 

Launches

 

SpaceX’s first Starlink mission was launched on 22 February, 2018 (2:17 pm UTC), three years after the announcement of its satellite development plans.

SpaceX’s first two Starlink prototype satellites, Tintin-A and Tintin-B, pictured before their inaugural launch. They were launched as secondary payloads with the Spanish radar observation satellite (PAZ) on a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

 

These test satellites were placed in a polar orbit of 514 km at an inclination of 97.5 degree. In 2020, both re-entered the atmosphere.

This launch was followed by SpaceX’s first 60 Starlink v 0.9 test communications satellites on 24 May, 2019 (2:30 am UTC).

The 60 test satellites were placed into 450 km orbit to test various aspects of the network, including deorbiting.

The satellites were deorbited deliberately so that they do not become space junk once they become derelict. By 2021, all had re-entered the atmosphere.

On 11 November (2:56 pm UTC), SpaceX launched the first 60 Starlink v1.0 satellites, initializing the deployment of the world’s largest commercial satellite constellation.

The 60 satellites were released in a circular orbit at 290 km from where they autonomously raised their altitude to 550 km into the initial shell of the constellation at 53 degrees inclination.

 

Even on its regular Starlink launches, SpaceX provides rideshare services for other small satellites.

On 13 June, 2020, the first Starlink rideshare launch carried only 58 Starlink v1.0 satellites (as against the usual number of 60) to accommodate 3 Earth-observation satellites.

In October 2020, SpaceX began rolling out public beta testing for its Starlink satellite internet service in the U.S. and Canada, after running friends and family trials for at least three months.

Beta testing is a pre-release testing of a nearly finished product by a group of end-users to evaluate its performance before its official release.

Called “Better Than Nothing Beta”, the beta program promised data speeds from 50 to 150 megabits per second and latency of 20 to 40 milliseconds. It was so named for users who had no access to high-speed broadband internet.

The beta test cost was $99 per month plus a one-time fee of $499 for the “Starlink Kit” comprising a user terminal (also called as antenna or satellite dish), a tripod mount, a wireless router, network cables and a power supply – POE (Power Over Ethernet) injector.

You can also purchase additional mounting equipment for rooftop installation while placing your order.

 

On 26 May, 2021, after completing 28 launches, the first 53.0-degree orbital shell of Phase-1 of the constellation was filled.

As of then, 1665 Starlink v1.0 satellites were deployed, excluding the two v0.1 TinTin satellites, 60 v0.9 test satellites and 10 v1.0 satellites launched to polar orbit.

 

 

 

Deployments

 

Since the first operational deployment in 2019 until now, SpaceX has made 48 Starlink mission launches: 1 with v0.9 satellites, 29 with v1.0 satellites and 19 with v1.5 satellites.

It has also launched a total of 13 satellites into polar orbit as part of the first two Transporter rideshare missions in January and June 2021. These were for the third shell of 97.6-degree. The 3 satellites launched in June were v1.5 prototypes with laser inter-satellite links for testing them in a polar orbit.

The next launch in September 2021, initialized the deployment of the operational v1.5 satellites using laser links technology, replacing the previous generation of v1.0 satellites. This was for the second shell of 70-degree covering Alaska and Northern Europe.

The deployment of satellites for Phase-1’s fourth orbital shell at 53.2-degree for coverage of the mid to low latitudes began with the first launch in November 2021.

 

Till date, a total of 18 launches have been made for this orbital shell.

 

In March 2021, May 2021 and May 2022, SpaceX achieved one-Starlink launch-every week.

 

 

Starlink Installation

 

To access Starlink hi-speed internet, the only requirement is a Starlink kit and a clear view of the sky. The communication with satellites is influenced by weather (rain, heavy clouds, etc.).

Starlink users can connect to the Starlink satellites with the thin, flat dish or antenna (or as SpaceX refers to as a “UFO on a Stick” or “Dishy McFlatface”) that can automatically self-adjust to optimal position.

When powered up, “Dishy” quickly scans the sky and automatically connects to the nearest of more than 2000 active Starlink satellites. The satellite communicates with the ground station nearest to the user for high-speed internet access. The connection is maintained even as “Dishy” swaps from the satellite exiting its field of view to a new satellite entering its field of view, all within microseconds.

“Dishy” is hydrophobic and weather resistant. It can handle a wide range of temperatures and weather conditions. It is proven to withstand extreme cold (-22 degrees Fahrenheit) and heat (122 degrees Fahrenheit), hail, sleet, heavy rain, and gale force winds – and it can even melt snow.

Setting up Starlink is very simple and it takes just 15 minutes to get online. A Starlink app for iOS and Android uses augmented reality to guide in the installation, selecting the best location and position for the user terminal, running speed tests, troubleshooting connectivity issues, and connecting to customer service for any further assistance.

Watch this video of the Starlink kit and the installation process:

 

 

While sending a million people to Mars on its powerful Starship spacecraft, SpaceX will also have to provide them with a way to communicate using their iPhones or Androids. For that, SpaceX will have to launch a satellite constellation on Mars too, which means that current advancements in Starlink will lead to future development of wireless network on Mars.

Starlink’s terms of service includes a clause for services provided on Mars, or in transit to Mars via Starship or other spacecraft. Users must agree that “Mars is a free planet and that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities. Accordingly, disputes will be settled through self-governing principles, established in good faith, at the time of Martian settlement.”

Being in its initial phase, Starlink’s network performance in a particular location is affected by the number of satellites servicing the region.  The beta program delivers data speeds between 50 to 150 megabits per second and latency from 20 to 40 milliseconds in most locations, and sometimes no connectivity at all.

No connectivity is due to gaps in the initial phase of the satellite constellation. So if a satellite passes out of your field of vision before another comes into range, it will result in a service interruption.

Speed is expected to vary too.  With satellite internet, each geographical area has a finite amount of capacity because all internet traffic has to pass through satellites closest to that particular area.

Network congestions are expected as too many people get online in a given area. In high-density urban areas, even a low percentage of users will quickly overload the Starlink network, whereas it will be unaffected in low-density rural areas with a high number of users as rural population is widely distributed.

Speed and latency improve with an increasing number of satellites in orbit, ground stations and improvements in networking software.

Starlink’s unlimited data caps remains a great perk that no other competitor has ever offered.

At the end of August 2021, the Starlink public beta program had more than 100,000 users spread over 17 countries.

By the end of 2021, initial deployment for the constellation was already complete and SpaceX was expanding its capabilities with extended geographic coverage and updated designs of both the satellites and ground equipment in their network while refining its network operations.

A second generation Starlink user terminal or antenna was introduced. From a circular design, it became rectangular.

SpaceX is now developing a third-generation Starlink user terminal.

On 14 February, 2022, Elon Musk tweeted that over 250000 user terminals had been shipped.

The beta program was to end in October 2021, but it is still going on due to a long backlog of customer orders.

 

 

Speed, Performance and User Feedback

 

While SpaceX is transparent about potential instabilities in its satellite network, Starlink works well during stable periods. So far, the service has been delivering on its promises, with almost no users complaining of speeds falling below the 50-150 Mbps.

By late January 2021, Starlink beta had more than 10,000 users according to an update given by SpaceX to the FCC.

Despite its early build-up stage with fewer satellites in orbit, the initial Speedtest results as disclosed to the FCC were very promising: Starlink achieved a download rate of 102 to 103 megabits per second (Mbps), upload rate of 40 to 42 Mbps, and a latency of 18 to 19 milliseconds (ms). Latency was on par with ground internet service.

SpaceX said that because of its use of low Earth orbits, “Starlink was the only satellite Internet provider with a median latency that was anywhere near that seen on fixed broadband in Q2 2021.”

Starlink speed is even more impressive when combined with the perk of having unlimited data. Data caps cause significant slowing for satellite customers, since most run out of data before the end of the month and their speeds get throttled.

Customers report fluctuating speeds and occasional outages as the Starlink network continues to launch. The Starlink app gives users a countdown to when the next satellite is expected to reconnect service.

Users use multiple devices without any impact on the service’s quality or speed. A user from Minnesota said, “We are online all day, every day on meetings. It sustains that easily. We also use streaming services. Combined with my in-laws, we have at least 25 devices – smart phones, laptops, desktops, iPads, smart tv, smart home devices, etc.”

While the US is looking to increase satellite broadband competition, Starlink dominates the competition in speeds and latency. The average satellite internet latency is 600 milliseconds, so Starlink’s current latency rate of 20-40 milliseconds is a boon for rural customers.

Even users in Australia are happy with Starlink speeds.

And users in France too.

 

 

Starlink Business

 

In February 2022, Starlink introduced a premium service “Starlink Business” offering faster internet speeds and improved performance to its customers in existing markets. It is designed for businesses and will deliver higher speeds from 150 to 500 Mbps for a monthly cost of $500 per month, plus an initial payment of $2,500 for the equipment.

Starlink Business promises a stronger connection with prioritized bandwidth and weather-resistant satellite internet equipment.

The antenna for Starlink Premium has more than twice the capability of the standard Starlink plan antenna, enabling high performance connectivity for offices of up to 20 users, storefronts, and demanding workloads across the globe.

Customers can order as many Starlinks as needed and manage all of their service locations, no matter how remote, from a single account. Unlike the standard plan, which only provides service to a specific address, enterprise customers can connect from anywhere. This will be useful for any business that relies on their employees being on the move or has a more “flexible” work environment.

SpaceX has collaborated with Google to provide data and cloud services for Starlink Enterprise customers.

Customers will benefit from 24/7 support and assist features through a mobile app and a publicly routable IPv4 address.

Starlink has started taking orders for this service with plans to deliver it soon this year.

 

 

Competitive lead in the United States

 

Compared to the established nationwide satellite providers HughesNet and Viasat with large customer base, Starlink availability is limited as network development is still in progress. Customer orders are processed on a first come, first served basis. Depending on location, some orders take 6 months or more to fulfil.

The major difference in service comparison of Starlink with Viasat and HughesNet is the monthly data allotment. Starlink offers unlimited internet data at high speeds with low latency. Unlimited satellite internet data and fast broadband speeds make a huge difference for rural communities.
Viasat and HughesNet have data caps for their tariff plans, so when their users exceed their plan’s data cap, the internet speed drops down significantly to almost unusable.

The one-time cost of Starlink kit at $599 (for Home) and $2,500 (for Business) including shipping & handling fees and tax is more expensive than the other two companies, but it has no internet contracts with its service. Service can be cancelled at any time and with no cancellation fees. It will continue until the end of the paid period. If the service is cancelled within the first 30 days, Starlink offers a full refund of equipment cost provided the equipment is in good shape and in the original packaging.

Viasat and HughesNet require 2-year contracts and charges for technicians’ installation fees, Starlink users can easily install the equipment after downloading the Starlink app which guides them through the process.

The expensive one-time user terminal cost stands as a financial barrier to Starlink’s mission to provide a better, faster, and cheaper internet solution for hard-to-reach rural communities. But unlimited data at above-average broadband speeds with low latency are its promising features.

Starlink is the only satellite internet service provider offering speeds that are comparable to fixed broadband providers as is seen below during the period from October to December 2021:

 

 

User Terminal Feedback

 

Users have good words for reliability of not just the internet service but also of the Starlink Kit, especially the user terminal or antenna.

 

One of the downsides to satellite internet is bad weather and obstructions. Getting a line-of-sight connection to satellites in areas with tall trees or other obstacles is a problem.

Heavy rain or wind can also affect the satellite internet connection, potentially leading to slower speeds or a rare outage.

But as per some users, Starlink antenna works even in the midst of heavy winds, rainfall and snowstorms. Some also reported that the equipment does not draw too much power.

Starlink terminals are even able to function in harsh winter conditions thanks to an internal heating unit.

The terminal or antenna is capable of detecting and melting snow that lands on it, but it cannot help prevent outages and interruptions when its field of vision to the satellite is blocked by surrounding snow build-up and other obstructions.

SpaceX promises that the enterprise version of the terminals will be even more robust in frigid weather.

SpaceX has already thought of having different variants of its user terminal: one for the military to be carried in a pack, another one that fits onto airliners to provide internet service to passengers while over the ocean, and yet another for cars and RVs so that people can live a nomadic life and still remain connected with the world.

Meanwhile, the price of home user terminals remains a challenge for SpaceX, which at present is selling them at a loss. The company was planning to bring down the price of $499, by roughly half before the end of 2021.

But in March 2022, Starlink prices were raised. The user terminal price increased to $599, while the monthly cost rose from $99 to $110.

Last month, on 5 May, SpaceX added a “portability” feature to its Starlink service for an additional fee of $25 per month which will allow users to temporarily move their Starlink antenna to a new location anywhere within the same continent where active coverage exists, and receive internet service.

A few weeks later, on 24 May, SpaceX launched a new “Starlink for RVs” service offering 50-250 mbps speeds at $135 per month.

Starlink for RVs is designed for customers who live life on the open road e.g. travellers, photographers, campers, etc. It is a pay-as-you-go internet service available while camping in an active coverage area.

The RV service can be paused when not in use and resumed at any time and is charged on a month-to-month basis. Moreover, there is a trial offer for up to 30 days. In case the customer is not satisfied, the equipment cost is fully refunded.

 

 

 

 

Starlink on Aircrafts, Ships, Large Trucks and RVs

 

SpaceX’s Starlink is living up to its word of providing internet service that will be available almost anywhere on Earth, including in the air and out at sea. It will soon work on moving large vehicles – aircrafts, ships, large trucks and RVs.

In 2021, while seeking Federal Communications Commission (FCC) permission to deploy Starlink terminals or Earth Stations on moving vehicles (or Earth Station in Motion (ESIM) as they are called), SpaceX had said that these terminals will be “ruggedized” to withstand harsh environments with extreme levels of heat and cold and will have improved snow/ice melt capabilities.

The standard Starlink user terminals go into thermal shutdown once they hit 122° Fahrenheit, which causes outages for some beta users. While ruggedized “ESIMs” will not solve the problem for home users, it is trying to make the next version of its home terminal more resistant to heat and cold.

SpaceX operates several oceangoing fleet of vessels, used for recovering its Dragon capsules, Falcon rocket boosters and rocket nosecones after missions. In order to expand its assessment of the end-to-end capabilities of its satellite system, SpaceX has been testing Starlink terminals on its seagoing vessels as well as on its autonomous spaceport droneships used to land rocket boosters at sea, since a year.

SpaceX expects to begin delivering service to commercial aircraft in about a year. It has already signed deals with air carriers Hawaiian Airlines and JSX to to provide free wireless internet for passengers using Starlink, thereby expanding into the inflight Wi-Fi market. This means you can soon stream video & play online games on air flights using Starlink network.

SpaceX’s Starlink internet will soon be available aboard cruise ships too.

Royal Caribbean Group, the world’s second-largest cruise line operator, is the first cruise liner to implement Starlink satellite internet for passengers onboard its ships. The Royal Caribbean Group has a total of 24 ships in its fleet.

Regarding the dual, high performance Starlink terminals for boats:

 

In 2020, a Twitter user had asked Elon Musk whether his kids would be able to connect to Starlink service out at sea so they could perform school work while on holiday and he received this reply:

 

 

Future Competition

 

Starlink satellite internet constellation is facing criticism from multiple fronts on its plans to launch approximately 30,000 second-generation satellites. SpaceX is not the only player in the fast-growing low-Earth-orbit satellite internet service business. The potential cash has ignited a commercial space race to build satellite internet constellations or mega-constellations.

Starlink is going to have competition in the coming years from companies like UK’s OneWeb and Canada’s Telesat, which plan to create smaller constellations. OneWeb – a bankrupt satellite operator rescued by the UK government and Bharti Global, an Indian telecom company in late 2020 – plans a constellation of about 650 satellites, more than half of which are already in orbit.

Tech giants like Amazon and Samsung have also announced plans to deploy their own constellations, which would consist of 3,236 to 4600 broadband satellites, respectively.

Starlink and other satellite internet constellations have pushed the European Union to build its own $6.8 billion satellite internet system to serve local governments, businesses, and consumers across the continent. Initial service of the “space-based secure communication system” is slated to begin in late 2024 before full service is offered in mid-2027.

In today’s digital world, space-based connectivity is a strategic asset for a country’s resilience. The European Commission wants to act fast on developing its own cutting-edge satellite internet constellation up in orbit when other players like US companies, China, and Russia are developing their own. “There is shortage of available frequency filings and orbital slots due to the dramatic increase of mega-constellations. Absence of timely action at EU level would also endanger the competitiveness of EU industry in key technologies and markets,” the commission said.

 

 

Competitive advantage

 

What sets SpaceX’s Starlink apart from other company constellations is that Starlink started from scratch with on-the-job experience to advance far ahead, and is already delivering results while others are still debating the details and are yet to deliver the output.

Speedtest data indicates that Starlink is approaching the speed of “traditional” landline broadband internet service through its three internet plans offering unlimited data at speeds of 50–250 Mbps for Starlink and Starlink RV and 150-500 Mbps for Starlink Business, which is highly beneficial in areas where internet access is slow and expensive or simply non-existent.

SpaceX is seeking FCC clearance to operate a second-generation Starlink network, which will span nearly 30,000 satellites, making it far and above the largest satellite constellation ever. The second-generation network promises to help SpaceX offer high-speed satellite internet to millions of users, especially in rural and remote regions.

SpaceX has a strong competitive advantage over its competitors as it launches its satellites to orbit using its own rockets. Launching several thousand satellites within a few years is convenient and relatively cheap as its Falcon 9 rockets can be reused at least 10 times, some of them have made 12 launches, one of them made its 13th launch just three days ago.

Last year, SpaceX filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to let it use its newer rocket, dubbed Starship, to launch the spacecraft. SpaceX is facing criticism from both competitors and government agencies, with the complaints ranging from the number of satellites that Starlink aims to put in orbit, to revised parameters that some believe will harm other satellite networks, to worries about orbital collisions between different constellations.

The general notion is that the Starlink constellation will one day crowd Earth’s orbit with too many satellites. But SpaceX has been assuring that Starlink will never litter Earth’s orbit with space junk or cause orbital collisions with other satellites.

The company also says it’s been sharing all orbital data from the existing Starlink network with governments and other satellite providers. “SpaceX is striving to be the world’s most open and transparent satellite operator and we encourage other operators to join us in sharing orbital data and keeping the public and governments updated with detailed information about operations and practices.”

SpaceX said that it has already been openly sharing information about Starlink orbits with the FCC, US Space Force, and Space-Track.org, a public website. In February 2022, it outlined its sustainability and safety protocol for Starlink satellites on its website:

https://www.spacex.com/updates/#starlink-update-04-28-2020

SpaceX also noted that a NASA program has already reviewed the anti-collision avoidance system for the Starlink satellites and “rated it trustworthy to rely on it to avoid collisions with NASA science spacecraft.” “SpaceX satellites’ flight paths are designed to avoid inhabited space stations like the International Space Station (ISS) and the Chinese Space Station Tiangong by a wide margin,” SpaceX went on to say. “We work directly with NASA and receive ISS manoeuvre plans to stay clear of their current and planned trajectory including burns. China does not publish planned manoeuvres, but we still make every effort to avoid their station with ISS-equivalent clearance based on publicly available ephemerides.”

 

 

Competitors envy

 

Starlink’s rapid development may have sparked some jealousy from satellite internet competitors including Viasat, HughesNet and Amazon’s Project Kuiper who have resorted to regulatory jousting and attempts to slow down Starlink’s progress.

Amazon’s Kuiper Project and ViaSat have filed regulatory challenges to SpaceX’s proposed plans. While some have told the FCC that the second-generation Starlink network’s massive size could one day prevent them from entering the market, others are even demanding that the U.S. regulator dismiss the plan for the 30,000 constellation over concerns it will cause too much radio interference with other satellites in orbit and generate light pollution.

Earlier, Viasat had written to the FCC to conduct a thorough environmental review on Starlink and consider not allowing Starlink to greatly expand while light pollution issues surrounding its deployed satellites remain unresolved. FCC had rejected the petition but urged SpaceX to continue to work closely with astronomers to mitigate the brightness of its satellites. But this year, in the beginning of May, Viasat again wrote to the FCC saying those efforts had not fully mitigated the constellation’s light pollution issue, pointing to a recent article published by astronomers in a top ranking journal in astronomy and astrophysics which stated that “none of the techniques that Starlink and other LEO constellations are exploring can fully avoid them “harming astronomical science … launching significantly fewer satellites is the only mitigation that could do this.”

Starlink’s age-old rivals DISH Network and RS Access LLC jointly raised their concern to the FCC, telling it to explicitly reject the second-generation satellite application. RS Access used a slightly milder tone requesting the FCC to ‘defer in part’.

Satellite television provider DISH Network had been trying to block Starlink from gaining the 12 GHz band which will allow SpaceX to provide Starlink internet service to moving vehicles, boats, and aircraft. Although DISH is only a satellite television provider, it is building a 5G mobile broadband network that might use spectrum from the 12 GHz band that it uses for its satellite TV services.

So after the FCC granted SpaceX’s request to use the 12 GHz band for Earth Stations in Motions in July, in yet another attempt to deny SpaceX and Starlink the much-needed 12 GHz spectrum, DISH Network proposed certain rule changes for the spectrum to the FCC.

The rule changes proposed by DISH Network will affect Starlink customers as they will experience interference for more than. 77% of the time and total outages of services for 74% of the time. This would make Starlink, a service that is critical for disaster relief, unusable for most Americans.

Elon Musk said that DISH Network’s co-founder and chairman, Charlie Ergen is trying to steal the 12 GHz band meant for space internet. He said, “Starlink, because it is not dependent on any ground-based infrastructure, can provide internet connectivity to areas that have had floods or fires or earthquakes that have destroyed the ground-based infrastructure… That’s obviously extremely helpful for rescuing people. It’s like how do you find them? How do you communicate with them? Starlink can and has provided that in a number of situations.”

 

 

Launching competitors’ satellites

 

Elon Musk had said that SpaceX will never refuse to launch satellites for a competing constellation if they express interest in their launch services. When London-based OneWeb was left in a lurch after the suspension of its satellite launches on Russian Soyuz rockets, SpaceX came to its aid.

This year, SpaceX is going to launch satellites not just for OneWeb but also for SES (by the end of this month).

Currently, Starlink and OneWeb are the only satellite internet mega-constellations in low Earth orbit.

OneWeb had launched 428 of its planned 648 first-generation broadband satellites on 13 Soyuz rockets, representing two-thirds of its fleet and has 220 satellites built or under construction at its factory.

OneWeb reached an agreement with SpaceX to resume launching its satellite internet constellation later this year, just 18 days after suspending launches on Russian Soyuz rockets in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the subsequent Western sanctions.

OneWeb’s satellites fly in polar orbit at higher altitude, about 1,200 km from Earth and its network requires fewer satellites. But like Starlink, it plans to launch second-generation satellites to add to their constellations.

OneWeb activated partial coverage last year, but the company needs its full fleet to start global service. And it considered SpaceX — with its already high flight rate and inventory of reusable boosters —to be its best bet to get the rest of its satellites up quickly.

Then, in a further surprising move, on 14 June, SpaceX and OneWeb announced their frequency sharing agreement in a joint FCC filing, saying that their satellites can “efficiently coexist with each other.”

 

 

Impacts on astronomy and astrophotography

 

There have been significant concerns about the entry of privately-owned satellites in space, the threat posed by space debris resulting from the deployment of multiple satellite mega-constellations and a growing controversy in astronomical circles about the impact of low-orbiting satellites on the night sky.

Since the launch of the first batch of Starlink satellites in May 2019, astronomers have warned that the low-orbiting satellites will cause disruption to astronomy that could be possibly worse than light pollution.

Atmospheric scientists even warned that the vast amount of metal that will be burning in the atmosphere as SpaceX regularly replenishes its constellation and deorbits old satellites could cause drastic changes to Earth’s climate. Still, they do acknowledge that as against 1 or 2 tons of dead aluminium satellites, an estimated 50 tons of meteorite rocks burn on atmospheric entry every day.

After SpaceX launched the first-ever batch of 60 Starlink v 0.9 satellites on 23 May, 2019, the slowly spreading satellites became prominently visible in the night sky in the form of a moving train of lights.

SpaceX’s plan of a 42,000-strong mega-constellation has since faced criticism from astronomers due to concerns over light pollution, with the brightness of Starlink satellites in both optical and radio wavelengths interfering with scientific observations.

This “night sky event” happens in the weeks following a launch when the satellites raise their orbits. The satellites appear brighter as they are moving at very low altitudes and their solar panels are positioned differently.

Orbit raising position:

Such positioning reduces atmospheric drag on the satellites. The white back of the solar panels reflects diffuse light (or scattered light) to sky observers on Earth which appears in the night sky as “a string of pearls”.

People around the world have since then reported naked-eye sightings of the spectacular “trains”.

 

While the “light train” thrilled some, it horrified others. The sheer brightness stunned the astronomical community. Some scientists and researchers panicked and shared photographs of satellite streaks in their data.

When astronomers and astrophotographers raised concerns about the light pollution and radio interference caused by these satellites constellations, Elon Musk instructed the Starlink team to modify the satellite design for albedo reduction, or the degree of reflectivity of the satellites.

While the orbit-raising gets more attention due to bright lights in the night sky, the satellites at operational altitude are perceived as interference with ground-based astronomy and science missions. There are strong concerns about future images from highly sensitive telescopes.

Operational positioning:

New satellite designs were developed and tested to reduce satellite brightness and visibility.

In January 2020, SpaceX tested an experimental “DarkSat” satellite with a special, non-reflective coating giving it a black body look.

When that didn’t work, the Starlink software was updated to adjust positioning and sun visors were deployed to darken the satellites to eliminate or minimise light reflecting off the satellite’s body.

This modified “VisorSat” design resulted in about 50% reduction in albedo.

SpaceX has also said that in addition to providing orbital elements to help astronomers (and others) track its satellites, it is also now providing predictive data ahead of launch. It has also stated that it will work with organizations and space agencies to mitigate the impacts of its mega-constellation.

The sun visors have been done away and improved coatings have been used on the new satellites launched to orbit in an effort to reduce satellite brightness and visibility.

Now, there are growing concerns over the impact of the new large-size v2.0 satellite on night sky observations.

But SpaceX has come up with a solution:

 

https://t.co/P5mjZWwPyD

 

 

Usefulness of Starlink

 

National Security

Modern militaries require space and cyber capabilities as data flow is critical in any war-time environment.

In March 2022, the U.S. Airforce’s 388th Fighter Wing tested Starlink as a high-speed communication option to support the F-35A fighter jet.

Communication speed and reliability are vital to support the cyber needs of the F-35’s associated systems. But current military satellite internet capability is insufficient for the amount of data required for remote F-35 operations.

For the first time, cyber Airmen tested communication equipment using satellite and cellular internet capabilities and successfully harnessed speeds up to 30 times faster than current military satellite systems.

An F-35A Lightning II (U.S. Air Force photo):

Setting up and testing communication equipment (U.S. Air Force photo):

The setup requires linking a small satellite-internet dish with a gateway router in a hard-sided case, then to a terminal that splits classified and unclassified data.

The gateway router has the capability to connect to a wired network, satellite internet, or it also has several slots for cellular sim cards which can transmit data from many bands and regions. The router automatically selects which signal and network is fastest and transmit data simultaneously.

All of this is small enough to fit inside of an F-35’s travel pod, and virtually any Airman can be trained to set it up in less than 10 minutes.

 

Connecting remote areas & providing access to education, health services and even communications support during natural disasters.

Starlink is ideally suited for areas where connectivity has been unreliable or completely unavailable. It enables access to essential online services and resources for rural communities and remote areas that have historically gone unserved by traditional internet service providers.

More than 10,000 homes in some of the most remote areas in Quebec, Canada can access high speed internet thanks to a new partnership between the province and SpaceX.

Virtual doctor visits and remote learning are now possible for rural communities and students across the globe including in Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, rural Ontario and Manitoba in Canada, and remote schools in Chile (the only Latin American country with active Starlink customers), among many others.

In February 2022, Starlink service was provided to a small low-income neighbourhood in Sao Paulo in Brazil, under a partnership between SpaceX and a non-profit organization Fight for Peace (‘Luta Pela Paz’) to demonstrate Starlink technology to the Brazilian government. The service connected a student community centre providing educational resources to more than 40 students in small low-income neighbourhood.

Three months later, on 20 May 2022, Elon Musk visited Brazil to launch Starlink network to connect rural communities for education development and for environmental monitor of the Amazon rainforest.

 

Emergency Response

Starlink supports and prioritizes service for emergency responders around the globe. In the absence of traditional ground infrastructure, Starlink can be deployed in a matter of minutes to support emergency responders in disaster scenarios.

 

Tonga

In February 2022, SpaceX launched a free high-speed internet service to connect remote villages on the tiny Pacific island nation of Tonga after a devastating volcanic eruption and tsunami caused by an undersea volcano Hunga Tonga, about 40 miles north of Tonga’s main island, cut off Tonga from the outside world.

The volcano’s shockwave destroyed Tonga’s internet connection, severing the 92-km (57-mile) section of the 827-km submarine fibre optic cable connecting Tonga to nearby Fiji (500 miles away) and other international networks.  Reconnection was to take at least a months’ time. The domestic cable connecting the outlying islands with Tonga’s main island Tongatapu was closer to the volcanic eruption and was to take six to nine months to replace.

Two days after the eruption, a New Zealand politician Dr Shane Reti sent a letter to Elon Musk seeking assistance to provide Starlink internet to the people of Tonga. Relatives of those in Tonga also tweeted to Elon Musk requesting for Starlink.

On receiving requests, Elon Musk immediately arranged for the restoration of internet service on an emergency basis. It was very challenging task for SpaceX as they did not have enough satellites with laser links at that time.

A team of SpaceX engineers set up a Starlink gateway station in Fiji and donated 50 VSAT terminals and free capacity for the emergency operation until the cable is replaced.

 

Ukraine

On 26 February, 2022, two days after Russia entered Ukraine, the country’s Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov tweeted to Elon Musk asking for assistance with restoring his country’s internet communication crippled by a Russian cyberattack.

The existing Viasat satellite internet service used by the Ukrainian military was disrupted an hour before the Russian armour pushed into Ukraine. The Viasat outage had immediate knock-on consequences for satellite internet users across Europe as the crippled modems had to be replaced manually.

Elon Musk responded within hours of the request for Starlink terminals, as SpaceX was already working on providing service in Ukraine. It took the Vice PM’s tweet as permission to operate in the country since official paperwork was taking time.

Starlink was able to resist Russian jamming and hacking attempts, but SpaceX had to ramp up its efforts with software updates as some Starlink terminals near conflict areas were getting jammed for several hours at a time. Elon Musk gave priority to cyber defence to overcome Russia’s multiple signal-jamming and hacking attempts on Starlink.

Starlink has won immense positive coverage for its contribution to keeping worn-torn Ukraine connected.

SpaceX has delivered thousands of Starlink terminals to war-torn Ukraine in an effort to keep the country online. Currently, there are more than 15,000 Starlink terminals in Ukraine providing satellite internet service across the country.

The daily active user count differs from the number of subscribers or Starlink terminals in Ukraine, as multiple users would be able to connect to each terminal.

 

Pleas for Starlink in emergency situations

The ability to start service quickly is a major advantage in emergencies as can be seen from the examples of Tonga and Ukraine. Such is the wonderful service of Starlink to those in need, that whenever any country faces an emergency situation, people tweet to Elon Musk for assistance.

 

 

Global expansion

 

SpaceX has told investors that Starlink is angling for a piece of a $1 trillion market made up of in-flight internet, maritime services, demand in China and India – and rural customers.

Regulations have proven to be the more challenging hurdle in all of Elon Musk’s projects. But getting past worldwide hurdles to deliver low-cost, high-speed broadband internet service to any remote corner of the world is most challenging.

Starlink had already received more than 5,000 pre-orders by October 2021, for its devices in India, but it is struggling to receive commercial licences without which it cannot offer services in the country. In December, the Indian government ordered SpaceX to stop preselling the satellite broadband service until it gives regulatory approval.  There are several isues to be resolved with the licensing framework to allow Starlink operations in India.

Starlink is expected to make its Southeast Asian debut within a few months, beginning with Philippines.

There are plans to launch service in Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Myanmar around 2023.

Satellite-based internet offers clear advantages in a region with numerous islands. Satellites offer an easier way to connect these areas compared with laying undersea cables. Tonga is the best example of how satellite internet service helps keep a country connected during natural disasters like volcanic eruptions, which are common in the Southeast Asian region.

Moreover, Southeast Asia’s geopolitics are also raising interest in communications satellites to provide internet access in case land-based lines are severed. E.g. Countries locked in a dispute with China over island sovereignty in the South China Sea

Meanwhile, China is wary of Starlink.

China

To compete with Starlink, China is planning to build its own satellite mega-constellation offering global internet coverage.

Already, Chinese military researchers are concerned by the potential military capabilities of Starlink, which they claim could be used to track hypersonic missiles; dramatically boost the data transmission speeds of U.S. drones and stealth fighter jets; or even ram into and destroy Chinese satellites.

So China is planning to develop countermeasures to spy, disable or even destroy Starlink.

According to the U.S. Department of Defence, China already has multiple methods for disabling satellites. These include microwave jammers that can disrupt communications or fry electrical components; powerful, millimetre-resolution lasers that can nab high-resolution images and blind satellite sensors; cyber-weapons to hack into satellite networks; and long-range anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles to destroy them.

Anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles create hazardous conditions for all nations operating in space. Explosions in orbit are more dangerous as they result in thousands of debris pieces, (small as a sand grain, big as a basketball) which can cause serious damage to satellites.

The U.S., China, India and Russia have all carried out ASAT tests in the past, creating space junk in the process. In November 2021, a Russian anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test blew up a defunct Soviet-era spy satellite in low-Earth orbit and created a debris field of at least 1,632 pieces that forced U.S. astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to seek refuge in their docked capsule.

In October 2021, China designed a way that will replace ASAT missiles and can be mistaken for an engine malfunction. To avoid the debris problem, an explosive device is packed inside a satellite’s exhaust nozzle, safely blowing up the satellite without making any mess. In April 2022, the U.S. announced a ban on further ASAT tests.

According to a recently released report from the U.S. Department of Defence, China has more than doubled its number of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) satellites since 2019, from 124 to 250.

At the beginning of 2022, China’s total number of satellites, including non-ISR ones, was 499, second only to the United States’ 2,944, of which Starlink makes up more than 2,300, as per the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) data available at  www.ucsusa.org

 

 

How to order Starlink

 

SpaceX has a dedicated website www.starlink.com to order Starlink terminals. On entering your address, you will see whether Starlink is available in your country or in your region.

Orders are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. You can secure your spot on the waitlist by paying a $110 or $500 deposit, depending on if you want the standard Starlink service and Starlink RV internet, or Starlink Business. If Starlink has internet coverage and bandwidth capacity in your area, you can get your Starlink Kit shipped directly to you within 2 weeks.

Costs are the same around the world, but in local currency and taxes. Delivery fee is extra.

To check when Starlink will be available where you live, you just need to enter your address.  You will get a general estimate of when you can expect service to arrive in your area.

 

 

Starlink Progress

 

Starlink beta test program still on, new orders in 2023.

In September 2021, Musk tweeted that Starlink would exit its initial beta phase in October 2021, indicating that the service was continuing to ramp up and expand. Even so, Starlink still faces a backlog of prospective customers waiting to receive equipment and start service.

In October, Starlink said that some pre-orders could take as long as six months to fulfil. In some regions, Starlink now says that new orders may not be fulfilled until 2023 or later.

According to Starlink, more than 750,000 people worldwide have pre-ordered the satellite internet services. Even in countries where Starlink has licenses to operate, pandemic-related supply chain issues have resulted in shipping delays.

In November 2021, SpaceX told pre-order customers that “silicon shortages over the last six months have slowed the company’s expected production rate, impacting its ability to fulfill many Starlink orders this year.”

 

Fast-growing number of subscribers

The Starlink satellite network has been steadily rolling out Starlink access to more than 36 countries so far including those in North America and Europe, and is aiming to expand to most of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East next year.

Its Starlink network serves 48 U.S. states and over 500,000 subscribers around the world, and provides high-speed, low-latency broadband to support, unserved and underserved communities, remote clinics and telehealth, disaster response efforts, schools and libraries, enterprise and small business. And it will connect even more people and places with its next-generation user terminals.

On 5 June, Elon Musk tweeted this short video highlighting SpaceX’s achievements and progress at the end of May.

VIDEO IN THE LINK:

 

Launching satellites at a growing pace

On 13 June, 2022, after a long and lengthy environmental review of SpaceX’s Starship facility at Starbase, South Texas, the FCC cleared the way for SpaceX to prepare for the maiden orbital launch of its gigantic new rocket from Starbase.

Besides returning humanity to the moon for NASA, Starship is also going to take humanity to Mars for Elon Musk. But before that, Starship is going to launch the heavier v2.0 Starlink satellites to orbit at a rapid pace.

SpaceX is still developing its full satellite fleet in orbit to be able to expand its Starlink network and deliver the promised service. Starlink will have continuous global coverage only when all its satellites in the constellation reach their operational orbit.

Live Starlink Satellite & Coverage Map:https://satellitemap.space/index.html

Starlink Statistics: https://planet4589.org/space/stats/star/starstats.html

Starlink statistics  as of 31 August, 2022:

3208 satellites have been launched, 2941 satellites are still in orbit, and 2383 satellites are in licensed operational shells.

 

 

Recent Developments

 

Starlink is not just about satellite internet access. SpaceX has far more ambitious plans for Starlink, as disclosed by regulatory filings which mention a Starlink phone service and dedicated battery backup systems.

On 26 August, 2022, in a special media event at Starbase, Elon Musk and T-Mobile CEO and President Mike Sievert announced Coverage Above & Beyond, a technology alliance between SpaceX and T-Mobile, which will provide connectivity from space to anyone anywhere with a cell phone.

Despite powerful LTE and 5G terrestrial wireless networks, more than 20% of the United States land area and 90% of the Earth remain uncovered by wireless companies. These dead zones have serious consequences for remote communities and those who travel off the grid for work or leisure.

About half-a million square miles in the United States are currently unreached by cell signals. Leveraging Starlink’s second-generation satellites and the mid-band spectrum, mobile network, and large customer base of T-Mobile, the second-largest wireless carrier in the United States, the two companies are planning to provide customers text coverage practically everywhere in the continental US, Hawaii, parts of Alaska, Puerto Rico and territorial waters, even outside the signal of T-Mobile’s network.

Not only will the new service end mobile dead zones, but it will also saves lives during hurricanes, fires, and other natural disasters.

Elon Musk talked about the new service being helpful during natural disasters. “Even if an entire region or country was lost to connectivity because of a severe hurricane or floods or fires, or tornadoes…earthquakes–there are so many natural disasters obviously. Even if all cell towers were taken out, your phone would still work.”

Text messaging, including SMS, MMS, and participating messaging apps, will empower customers to stay connected and share experiences nearly everywhere. Afterwards, the companies plan to pursue the addition of voice and data coverage.

The satellite-to-cellular service will provide nearly complete coverage anywhere a customer can see the sky – meaning you can continue texting and eventually make a cell phone call even when you leave terrestrial coverage.

Starlink satellites will work as ground-based mobile towers in the sky. Once enabled, a user’s cell phone will first search for service from a cell phone tower for connectivity, and if unavailable, the phone will search the sky for the nearest satellite.

To deliver space-to-ground service to mobile phones, the orbiting satellites have to be powerful enough to pick up a very quiet signal from the user’s cell phone and talk to it for connectivity.  For this, SpaceX‘s next-generation Starlink V2 satellites will be launched next year.

T-Mobile will offer reciprocal roaming to the providers working with them. The new service will either be free or low cost for T-Mobile customers. Elon Musk’s Tesla electric vehicles will be able to use the service too. The vehicles will connect to Starlink V2, which will transmit directly to mobile phones, eliminating dead zones worldwide. This will make it possible to receive communication anywhere, which can save many lives.

The joint collaboration seeks to end mobile dead zones not just in the United States but even across the globe.

In yet another major development, SpaceX announced a price drop for its Starlink customers:

 

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This post is part of my current series which covers the phenomenal rise of the world’s no.1 aerospace company and manufacturer, SpaceX.

The series include the following posts:

Discovering SpaceX

Discovering SpaceX: Falcon Rocket Family

Discovering SpaceX: Fleet of Recovery Ships

Discovering SpaceX: Cargo & Crew Dragon

Discovering SpaceX: Starlink Satellite Constellation

Discovering SpaceX: Super Heavy Starship

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