All the Information You Need to Understand About this Controversial Internet Megaconstellation
Are Starlink satellites a revolutionary advance or an astronomical threat?
Starlink is the name of a satellite network developed by SpaceX to bring affordable internet to remote places. Starlink satellites typically have a lifespan of five years and SpaceX eventually plans to have up to 42,000 satellites in this “mega constellation.”
Starlink project concerns astronomers, who worry that bright objects in orbit could interfere with observations of the universe; and spaceflight safety experts who now view Starlink as the number one collision hazard in Earth’s orbit. Furthermore, some scientists worry that burning up metal from deorbiting old satellites could cause unexpected changes to Earth’s climate.
STARLINK SATELLITE TRACKER
Starlink satellites orbit 342 miles (550 kilometers) above Earth, providing an impressive spectacle for observers as they pass across the sky. Unfortunately, this spectacular show can significantly hinder optical and radio astronomy observations.
Starlink satellites can be easily observed without the aid of special equipment, as they are visible to the naked eye. They may appear as a string of pearls or an “train” of bright lights moving across the night sky. Starlink satellites become easier to spot a day or two after launch and deployment, becoming harder and harder to spot as they climb towards their final orbital altitude of around 342 miles (550 km).
To discover when and where you can see a Starlink satellite near you. Our list of the best stargazing apps may help with planning your viewing strategy as well. If you want to view all of Starlink satellites live in real-time, take a look at this map that displays their global coverage as well as information on how many are active, inactive or have burned up in Earth’s atmosphere.
To check Starlink internet coverage worldwide and if it’s available where you are, the company has an interactive map that details locations with service, those on the waitlist, and areas that will be “coming soon”.
Starlink is the perfect solution for areas with unstable or no connectivity. People around the world are using Starlink to access education, healthcare services and even communications during natural disasters.
THE HISTORY OF STARLINK
SpaceX’s satellite internet proposal was first unveiled in January 2015. At that time, CEO Elon Musk revealed the company had submitted documents with international regulators for placing approximately 4,000 satellites into low Earth orbit.
SpaceX’s satellite internet proposal was first unveiled in January 2015. Although no name was given at that time, CEO Elon Musk revealed that his company had filed documents with international regulators to launch approximately 4,000 satellites into Low Earth Orbit.
Musk’s initial estimate of the number of satellites soon doubled, as he sought to capture a slice of the estimated $1 trillion global internet connectivity market for his Mars colonization plans. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has granted SpaceX permission to launch 12,000 Starlink satellites and has filed paperwork with an international regulator for up to 30,000 more spacecraft.
Put in perspective, as of November 7, 2022, only 14,450 satellites have been launched throughout history with 6,800 currently operational according to the European Space Agency.
SpaceX successfully launched their two Starlink test craft, TinTinA and TinTinB, in February 2018. Based on initial data collected during the mission, the company requested regulators allow it to operate at lower altitudes than originally planned; ultimately, the FCC agreed.
On May 23, 2019, the first 60 Starlink satellites were successfully launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and reached their operational altitude of 340 miles (550 kilometers).
STARLINK’S IMPACT ON ASTRONOMY
Within days of the first 60-satellite Starlink launch, skywatchers noticed a stunning linear pearl string of lights as the spacecraft passed overhead in the early morning. Online guides provided instructions on how to track down this incredible display.
SpaceX and the astronomical community were caught off guard by this sudden brightness, with researchers sharing photos of satellite streaks in their data such as this trail image from Lowell Observatory in Arizona.
They expressed particular worry about future images from highly sensitive telescopes such as the Vera Rubin Observatory (formerly known as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope), which will explore every corner of our universe with exquisite clarity when it launches in 2022. Radio astronomers are also bracing for interference from Starlink’s radio-based antennas.
In June 2019, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) expressed their concerns in a statement. Satellite constellations pose an immediate and debilitating risk to important existing and future astronomical infrastructures, so we urge satellite designers and deployers as well as policy-makers to collaborate with experts in order to analyze and comprehend their effects on astronomy.
At the European Space Agency’s space debris conference in April 2021, Thomas Schildknecht, deputy director of the Astronomical Institute of the University of Bern and representative for Switzerland in the IAU, declared his union’s position that protecting pristine night skies as cultural heritage against unchecked expansion of mega constellations should be a top priority.
In October 2022, the American Astronomical Society (ASS) reported on the potential effects of mega constellations in astronomy. They suggested that skies may brighten by two to three times due to diffuse reflection of sunlight off spacecraft.
STARLINK COLLISION RISK
SpaceX faced further opposition in September 2019, when the European Space Agency (ESA) revealed it had ordered its Aeolus satellite to perform evasive maneuvers to avoid colliding with “Starlink 44,” one of the initial 60 satellites in the mega constellation. After learning from U.S. military estimates that collision probability was 1 in 1,000 — 10 times higher than ESA’s threshold for conducting such a maneuver – ESA took action and directed their Aeolus satellite into evasive maneuvers to avoid hitting “Starlink 44,” one of tens, ESA conducted its collision avoidance maneuvers accordingly.
Hugh Lewis, head of the Astronautical Research Group at the University of Southampton and Europe’s foremost space debris expert, told Space.com that Starlink satellites represent one of the primary sources of collision risk in low Earth orbit.
Computer models showed that at that time, Starlink satellites were involved in about 1,600 encounters a week between spacecraft closer than 0.6 miles (1 kilometer). That represents 50% of all such incidents. As more satellites are launched into orbit, Lewis predicted this number could rise exponentially until all 12,000 of their first-generation constellations are deployed – potentially reaching 90%.
Lewis expressed concern about Starlink’s operator SpaceX, a recent entry into the satellite business, becoming the single most dominant force in it and making decisions which could compromise all operations in low Earth orbit.
END OF LIFESPAN DEORBITING PROCEDURE
SpaceX plans to upgrade the Starlink mega constellation every five years with advanced technology, ending their service when they will be directed into Earth’s atmosphere and burned up. While this is certainly commendable in regards to space debris prevention, there is one issue: there’s another problem at stake.
The vast number of satellites that will be burning up in the upper layers of Earth’s atmosphere could drastically change its chemistry and have unintended consequences for life on our planet.
Canadian researcher Aaron Boley published a paper in Scientific Reports in May 2021 which noted that satellites’ aluminum will burn-up, producing aluminum oxide (also known as alumina). He cautioned that this compound has been known to contribute to ozone depletion and could alter Earth’s ability to reflect heat.
Geoengineering could become out-of-control, leading to an alteration in Earth’s climate balance. At present, there are no known effects from such alterations.
Karen Rosenlof, an atmospheric chemistry expert at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), expressed concern about the effects of particles emitted by burning satellites in the atmosphere. Rosenlof has extensive expertise in modeling geoengineering interventions.
David Fahey, Director of NOAA’s Chemical Sciences Laboratory and Martin Ross a physics and meteorology scientist with Aerospace Corporation both told Space.com that more research is urgently necessary to comprehend the effects of burning increasing amounts of satellites in the atmosphere.
Scientists noted that particles in those high layers of the atmosphere could potentially linger forever. Boley noted that while satellites burning in the atmosphere will be much smaller than meteorites, their chemical composition differs and thus scientists do not know whether their burning products will remain present.
With time, the accumulation of particles would increase and so would their intensity. It is thus unlikely that over decades the pollution from burning mega constellation satellites won’t lead to changes on a scale similar to what we are already witnessing with fossil fuel-induced climate change.
On Feb. 3, 2022, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched 49 Starlink satellites from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Unfortunately, only one day later an Earth-shaking geomagnetic storm increased atmospheric density, increasing drag on the satellites and ultimately leading to their premature demise.
STARLINK SATELLITE USE IN EMERGENCIES
Starlink internet can be accessed in remote areas within minutes with the right equipment, making it a useful resource during times of emergency.
Starlink internet service has already been successfully utilized during emergency situations in Ukraine and Tonga.
Starlink, SpaceX’s vast and ever-expanding broadband constellation, has been an essential piece of Ukraine’s communications infrastructure throughout the ongoing Russian invasion. Ukrainian government officials first requested Starlink terminals on February 26, two days after the invasion began; these first ones arrived in the country two days later on Feb. 28.
In early April, SpaceX and the U.S. Agency for International Development announced they had jointly delivered approximately 5,000 Starlink terminals to Ukraine – with SpaceX directly providing over 3,000 of them. Since then, Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, estimates this number to have grown substantially – now around 25,000 or so.
Musk warned of potential difficulties in Ukraine in March 2022 when he noted that Starlink terminals had become jammed in conflict areas. At that time, his company was already working on an upgrade and Musk also promised further investment into cyber defense to keep Starlinks running smoothly.
In February 2022, at least 50 Starlink terminals were sent to Tonga in the Pacific Ocean with the purpose of providing its residents with free Internet access, especially in remote villages. Tonga needed these terminals after experiencing a devastating volcano eruption and tsunami in January. According to SpaceX Reuters(opens in new tab), these will enable communications within some of those regions with the worst effects from this eruption.
SPACEX’S PLANS FOR STARLINK
SpaceX has stated that it will collaborate with organizations and space agencies to reduce the negative effects of its mega constellation, Starlink. Furthermore, SpaceX hopes to put at ease astronomers’ worries about Starlink’s effect on the night sky.
SpaceX has taken action to prevent this from occurring. Recently launched Starlink satellites now feature visors designed to block sunlight from glancing too brightly off their most reflective parts.
However, the large numbers of satellites from SpaceX and other private space companies such as OneWeb suggest light pollution issues may persist, prompting advocates to call for stronger regulations from government agencies.
HOW DO STARLINK SATELLITES WORK?
According to Sky & Telescope magazine(opens in new tab), each Starlink satellite weighs 573 lbs. (260 kilograms) and is roughly the size of a table.
Satellite internet works differently than conventional methods of reaching distant places, sending information through space at 47% faster speeds than fiber-optic cable can travel, according to Business Insider(opens in new tab).
Satellite internet currently works using large spacecraft that orbit 22,236 miles (35,786 km) above Earth’s surface. But at such distances there are usually significant delays when sending and receiving data. Starlink’s satellites, by being closer to our planet and networking together, enable rapid transmission of large amounts of information across oceans or hard-to-reach places where fiber-optic cables would be costly or impractical to lay down.
HOW YOU CAN ACCESS STARLINK’S INTERNET SERVICE
After entering your service address, you can determine if Starlink is available in your region. Pricing varies by region; for instance, a search of an address in Brooklyn in November 2022 revealed a hardware cost of $599.00 plus one-time shipping and handling charge of $50.00 as well as monthly service charge of $110.00.
Many users in rural regions report faster download speeds than their local options, though this varies by location. Download speeds typically range between 100 Mb/s and 200 Mb/s, with latency times as low as 20ms in most locations.
Once your box arrives, look for a Starlink kit that allows you to connect to the internet. A Starlink app and website user guide should help guide you through installation.