How SpaceX's Starlink Could Close the Digital Divide for Internet Access

SpaceX says it has a plan to stop space junk. But astronomers have concerns.

At least one of Elon Musk’s Starlink predictions has already turned out to be untrue.

Despite cautioning that “much will likely go wrong on 1st mission,” SpaceX successfully launched an array of 60 satellites with barely a hitch over the long weekend. SpaceX is now on track to carry out up to six Starlink-related satellite launches in 2019, which would, in theory, be enough for them to begin providing internet coverage in the United States and Canada.

“Starlink is targeted to offer service in the Northern U.S. and Canadian latitudes after six launches, rapidly expanding to global coverage of the populated world after an expected 24 launches,” Starlink’s website now reads. “SpaceX is targeting two to six Starlink launches by the end of this year.”

This may allow SpaceX to speed up its timeline. The company predicts it will aim to have launched roughly 720 satellites by the end of 2020. That’s a pace of about one launch every six weeks, assuming SpaceX is able to proceed with half of its planned launches for 2019. That would be enough to provide continuous coverage for most of the populated areas on Earth, according the company’s estimates.

How Starlink Could Close the Digital Divide

Satellite-based internet is an irresistable proposition. Only about 56 percent of the global population has internet, according to the latest estimates. Satellites would be able to provide much broader access much more quickly.

Even in the United States this has the potential to be a game-changer. One in ten U.S. adults still doesn’t use the internet, according to the latest data from Pew. Some of those users are simply old and don’t care about being able to get online, but many abstainers would likely use the internet if they could. One in four rural residents describe the lack of broadband access as a “serious problem.”

People who can access high speed internet would also likely still benefit from lower prices satellite arrays would likely inspire. Because broadband infrastructure is so expensive to install, many customers only have access to one provider. Broadband customers with two or three options save an average $10 per month relative to those with only one, according to Broadband Now. Starlink’s array alone, they estimate, would save consumers some $18 billion in subscription broadband costs per year.

What are the Criticisms of Starlink?

Not everyone is excited about the plan, including, notably, astronomers. As spectacular images of Starlink’s array dotting the sky flooded social media, astronomers in particular began to wonder aloud how filling lower earth orbit with roughly 12,000 satellites might affect their ability to study the stars. You can check out some of the best footage below, captured by a satellite tracking station in the Netherlands.

“Hundreds of satellites being visible to the unaided eye would be a disaster. They would completely ruin our view of the night sky,” wrote Michael J. I. Brown, an astronomy professor at Monash University, in an op-ed for The Conversation. “They would also contaminate astronomical images, leaving long trails across otherwise unblemished images.”

Musk was quick to address the criticism. He noted on Twitter that there are already several thousands of satellites in orbit, and that the Starlink satellites won’t be illuminated, either.

“There are already 4900 satellites in orbit, which people notice ~0% of the time,” Musk said in a reply to one astronomer. “Starlink won’t be seen by anyone unless looking very carefully & will have ~0% impact on advancements in astronomy.”

spacex starlink animation
SpaceX has been approved to put roughly 12,000 Starlink satellites in orbit.

But the bigger problem presented by satellite-bestowing internet as not only SpaceX, but its competitors, begin to construct arrays of their own. Collisions will get more likely. The addition of the Starlink array alone is expected to necessitate 67,000 avoidance maneuvers per year, reported Scientific American. A little collision goes a long way: Roughly half of the 34,000 pieces of space junk currently orbiting the planet stem from just two incidents. Collisions may turn out to have a knock-on effect, as each collision makes further collisions likelier.

SpaceX’s answer to the problem of space junk is that its arrays will eventually be programmed to avoid collisions autonomously, and that they will be designed to burn up in the atmosphere when they no longer function. Competitors like OneWeb are also thinking about the problem of space junk: OneWeb’s satellites will all be fitted with handles to make them easier to remove from the atmosphere (who or what will be grasping these handles, however, remains an open question.)

These efforts will need to kick into high gear. If the space internet arrives ahead of schedule, so, too will the knock-on effects of filling the sky with tens of thousands of new satellites.