How SpaceX’s Starlink is changing how the world communicates


Starlink, the satellite communications system being deployed by SpaceX, has been very much in the news recently, from disaster relief in Tonga to keeping war-torn Ukraine connected to the world. Starlink is the most recent expression of a vision by Arthur C. Clarke, the writer and space visionary, who first proposed communications satellites in an article in Wireless World in 1945, just two months after the end of World War II.

Less than 16 years after Clarke’s article, President John F. Kennedy mentioned communications satellites in the same speech in which he announced the race to the moon, noting an “additional $50 million will make the most of our present leadership, by accelerating the use of space satellites for world-wide communications.” Over 60 years later, much of the world is connected by satellites that relay voice, text, video and data from one part of the world to another.

Most communications satellites are in a geostationary orbit, high enough that they are in the same part of the sky 24/7. Ground stations just have to point their dishes at the satellite to patch into a system that delivers services ranging from live-streaming TV to internet to smartphone communications.

Starlink is attempting a different approach. The system consists of a constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit, currently numbering just over 2,000, envisioned to eventually number in the tens of thousands. A customer would acquire a terminal that would consist of an antenna, wifi and cables. The antenna can be deployed anywhere exposed to the sky, such as a rooftop.

SpaceX advertises the service as a “high speed, low latency” internet service that will eventually encompass the entire globe, including rural areas where access to the internet has been spotty or even nonexistent. Through Starlink, a customer gets access to services such as online gaming, remote education and virtual doctor visits.

Starlink has not been without controversy. Astronomers complain that the satellite constellation constitutes light pollution that interferes with their observations. Others suggest that so many satellites in low-Earth orbit constitutes a space debris hazard. SpaceX claims that they are working with astronomers to minimize light pollution. The company also says that Starlink Satellites are designed to mitigate against the possibility of becoming space debris.

Starlink played a crucial role in the recovery of Tonga, a Polynesian kingdom of 169 islands in the South Pacific, when a volcano erupted in January, sending a plume 36 miles into the air and causing a devastating tsunami. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk provided 50 VSAT terminals that reconnected some of the outlying inhabited islands to the internet pending the restoration of undersea cables that had been destroyed by the disaster.

Starlink is facing its greatest test in Ukraine. According to Forbes, shortly after the Russians invaded the country, the Ukraine government requested that Musk provide that country with Starlink terminals, a request that Musk quickly obliged. While Ukraine’s regular internet service is being disrupted due to Russian hacking and destruction of infrastructure, Starlink is providing that country with an alternate way to access the world.

Information is one of the most crucial factors in winning a war. Starlink is providing Ukraine a way to send to the world its view of how the war is proceeding, rallying the world community to its cause and against the Russian invasion. No doubt, the satellite internet system is helping the Ukrainian Army receive intelligence about Russian troop deployments in near real-time.

Starlink is much harder for an enemy to thwart than a conventional internet connection. According to Space News, the Ukrainian Starlink system has been suffering from jamming attempts, presumably from Russia. Musk has instituted cybersecurity efforts to thwart such jamming. He has also provided the terminals with the ability to be powered from a car cigarette lighter and to work on a moving vehicle. A dispersed and mobile internet system is difficult for an enemy to disrupt and take down.

SpaceX continues to launch Starlink satellites, dozens at a time on the Falcon 9. When the Starship enters service, Musk hopes to launch hundreds of the satellites at a time. According to Syrus Today, Starlink may eventually have revenues of $30 billion to $50 billion a year, money that Musk intends to use to finance his dream of settling Mars. A truly interconnected world would thus lead to an interplanetary civilization. Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, would have approved.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. 

Tags Elon Musk Mark R. Whittington SpaceX starlink Ukraine wifi

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