Starlink — the next-generation Internet

Exposure image of Starlink satellites. Source: New York Times

Have you ever experienced a vexing internet buffer while watching your favourite Netflix sitcom? We must have at least once. Imagine being able to access the internet at speeds in the range of gigabytes per second while sitting under a countryside tree without any interruption. This is about to happen pretty soon. SpaceX, an aerospace company founded by Elon Musk which specializes in manufacturing and launching some of the world’s most advanced rockets and spacecraft, has taken up Starlink, an ambitious project to build a broadband network with a bunch of satellites orbiting around the globe.

What is Starlink?

Starlink may sound like a word from our old comic books, but it’s actually Elon Musk’s project of launching 12,000 satellites(as of now) and eventually 30,000 in the low earth orbit (LEO). The project aims to provide high-speed internet in rural areas of America within this year and around the globe within 2021.

Starlink internet proposal happened back in January 2015 in which Musk stated that SpaceX had filed the documents to place about 4,000 satellites in LEO. When I was writing this, around 538 Starlink satellites are constellating in low altitude orbit including the 58 satellites that were launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on June 3rd.

Deployment of 60 satellites launched on June 3rd from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

How traditional Internet works?

Before getting to know how Starlink works, let’s have a look at how traditional Internet Services work. Consider sending a photo via an e-mail to a friend. It needs to undergo a certain process to reach the destination. At first, the photo is disintegrated into pieces known as data packets, which is nothing but 0s and 1s(binary). This data travels in the form of light through a “fibre-optic cable” to the IP address of the destination e-mail. In the same way, while accessing a website, when we enter the website’s link in search engine, it gets converted into the IP address of a server. This server might be several million kilometres away. After fetching the data from the server, it would reach us backtracking the IP address of our laptop or mobile. This time taken for the data to travel between our system and the server is called latency.

Source: keycdn

SpaceX says the latency of Starlink internet would be 15milliseconds which is 50% faster than fibre-optic cables.

How does Starlink look?

Imagine a constellation of satellites like dots interconnected with lines around the globe and this is how Starlink would look like at the end. It has some consequences which we’ll discuss in the forthcoming paragraphs. According to Sky & Telescope magazine, each satellite is roughly the size of a table and weighs around 500 lbs. (227 kg).

Source: Business Insider

How Starlink works?

Starlink satellites communicate among themselves using Lasers. Unlike fibre-optics, Starlink involves beaming of data in a vacuum of space. Interestingly, the speed of light is 47% higher in vacuum compared to fibre-optics. There are already some internet satellites that orbit around a height of 35,780 km from a particular spot on the earth, and the latency of this network is about half a second(500ms). In the case of Starlink, the satellites will be orbiting the earth at a height of around 550 km, which makes the dream of providing the fastest ever internet possible.

Source: Starlink

SpaceX partnered with US Air Force for initial testing process and the test happened in 2018 using only two satellites and the out-turn was around 610mbps. According to Elon Musk, at least 400 such satellites are needed for providing minimal internet coverage and 800 will be required for moderate coverage. Musk has also said that US and Canada might able to access Starlink internet by the end of 2020 and rest of the world by sometime in 2021.

Consequences and Solutions

One of the greatest struggles for SpaceX is concealing the satellites from the ground-based telescope of professional astronomers. For that, several measures including software fixes that dim satellites, darkening treatment to the surfaces that are vastly exposed to sunlight, equipping the satellites with sun visors which reduces brightness from reflection, etc., have been taken. They are also testing the satellites with knife-edge maneuver which helps them to roll and align in parallel plane to the sun, ultimately reflecting less sunlight.

Source: SpaceX

Why is Starlink important?

We know how much we had to spend for a gigabyte of data 4 years ago. But now, due to the Internet revolution brought by Jio in India, the internet has become an imperative thing in our lives. Yet, there are still some places around the globe without any access to the internet, which hinders the development of people living in those areas. This is because most of the private firms are choosing urban cities to build their network. But Starlink has taken this frame of reference into account and aims to outstretch its high-speed internet to every corner of the globe without any exceptions.

Starlink will bring a huge impact on the people living in rural areas who don’t have access to the internet. It is even possible to access Starlink internet during air travel.

According to Business Insider India, although the cost of this project is around $10billion, the company would make a revenue of $30billion every year from Starlink. Elon has said this will be used to fund his dream project of colonizing the red planet which would cost him a trillion dollars.

As we all know Musk is a man of his words, we can expect to experience the Starlink internet by the end of 2021 or the beginning of 2022.

However, SpaceX isn’t the only company currently working on such high-speed internet projects. Companies such as OneWeb, Telesat and Amazon’s Project Kuiper are also competing with Starlink but they are way behind in the race.

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