Cory Barker | Content Writer
SpaceX and Elon Musk are names that most of us should be more than used to hearing by now. If, by some miracle, you have never seen a video of a rocket landing itself upright on the deck of a boat, or seen Elon ask Twitter users to send him their ‘dankest memes’, here is a TL;DR: SpaceX is a private spaceflight company whose main goal is to bring down the enormous cost of sending things (such as people) into space by developing reusable rockets. Eventually, the company hopes to use this business model to cheaply travel to Mars and other planets in the solar system.
One way that SpaceX plans to raise money for the company’s Mars projects is Starlink, a ‘constellation’ of thousands of tiny satellites weighing over 200kg each, orbiting just above Earth’s atmosphere providing high-speed internet coverage across the entire planet. Sixty of the little satellites can be jam-packed into a single Falcon 9 rocket. Sending data to each other via laser beams, they are actually 47% faster than fibre-optic, and users can connect to the satellites with stylish, lightweight dishes about the size of a large pizza. Starlink recently entered public beta-testing, and many users reported download speeds of over 100mbps. For comparison, many of us using fibre-optic in Egham would be lucky to get a consistent 60mbps. The people who have the most to gain from Starlink will be people in rural areas and developing countries with poor internet connectivity.
It is hard to overstate the staggeringly massive scale of the Starlink program. Ever since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 into orbit in 1957, a total of almost 9,000 satellites have been launched into Earth’s orbit. In just one year, SpaceX has already launched over 1,000 Starlink satellites, with plans to have at least 12,000 and possibly as many as 42,000 satellites in low Earth orbit. The implications of this have spurred criticism from astronomers as sunlight reflected off the satellites is already interfering with radio telescopes. Many are concerned about light pollution, and how we may no longer be able to see a ‘natural’ night sky without bright dots constantly whizzing past the stars. Perhaps the greatest concern is the danger that Starlink satellites may collide with space debris or other satellites. Anyone who has watched Gravity (2013) will understand the potentially catastrophic implications of orbital collisions. SpaceX claims that such a scenario is unlikely however, as each satellite can detect incoming space debris and is equipped with an ion engine to ‘dodge’ it.
2020 has been a year in which we have depended on the Internet more than ever before. From work to socialising to entertainment, most of us are now spending almost the entire waking day connected to the internet. We have been made painfully aware of our dependence on it, and how that dependence has affected some worse than others. But hopefully in the next few years, Starlink and potential competitors will help to level the online playing field.