Starlink is set to go worldwide sooner or later. SpaceX’s internet connectivity constellation promises high speed and low latency internet almost anywhere with a view of the sky, powered by a large number of satellites orbiting closer to the Earth than competing constellations.
Following a recent announcement, we did a little digging and it turns out Starlink may reach its ambitious global coverage goals this summer.
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SpaceX first started launching large batches of satellites in May 2019, and in late 2020 it started rolling out a “Better Than Nothing” beta service to get a select few customers online.
How Starlink satellites work
SpaceX has been gradually building out its constellation, and it may reach a milestone soon. In a live-streamed YouTube appearance with Via Satellite magazine, company president Gwynne Shotwell revealed SpaceX is aiming for “continuous coverage” throughout the globe once it’s launched 28 batches of satellites:
"We have roughly [...] 1,320-some version 1.0 satellites in orbit right now. We hope after about 28 launches we'll have continuous coverage throughout the globe, and then the plan after that is to continue to add satellites to provide additional capacity. We will do some polar launches starting this summer to get connectivity over the poles as well."
Shotwell’s comments reveal that global coverage could be a matter of months rather than years. Satellite tracking service Celestrak says there are 1,317 Starlink satellites orbiting Earth currently.
But others are skeptical. Richard Cole, project manager at University College London’s department of space and climate physics, tells Inverse that he believes Starlink will be able to provide global coverage between the 55th parallel north and 55th parallel south latitudes. That covers most of the populated world, but cities in the far north like Oslo and Reykjavík would fall outside.
In the south, it means Antarctic researchers would miss out.
“There is currently no Starlink coverage south or north of those limits,” Cole says. “Continuous coverage in those ‘polar’ regions will need at least another 12 launches (after the 28), from a quick calculation.”
How many Starlink satellites have launched in orbit?
SpaceX has launched Starlink satellites on 26 rocket launches.
- The first was a test launch, in February 2018, that sent up two test satellites.
- The second launched 60 “version 0.9” satellites in May 2019, most of which have now deorbited.
- The 19th launch in January 2021 sent up a small batch of 10 satellites to a polar orbit, the first set to offer coverage in this area.
That leaves 23 launches so far that sent up large batches of the latest Starlink satellites at a time.
When will Starlink be available globally?
The firm has gradually increased the rate at which it launches satellites, up from just two launches in 2019.
- In October 2020, SpaceX hosted three Starlink launches.
- In November 2020, SpaceX hosted one launch.
- In November 2020, SpaceX hosted no launches.
- In January 2021, SpaceX hosted two launches.
- In February 2021, SpaceX hosted two launches.
- In March 2021, SpaceX hosted four launches.
That means, over the past six months, the firm has launched Starlink satellites at a rate of around twice per month.
SpaceX launched one batch of satellites on April 7, and it’s expected to launch two more batches later this month. If it continues at the current rate, SpaceX may achieve continuous global coverage of those populated regions by June 2021.
The developer of the FindStarlink satellite tracker website, who goes by the name “cmdr2,” tells Inverse that “it's still early April, so given the current rate, it seems possible that by end-of-June we might have completed 28 launches of v1.0.” The developer did, however, clarify that “I don't have enough expertise to say whether global coverage will start by June or after 28 launches.”
Cole says that, for the remaining polar regions, SpaceX “will get some capability [...] from this summer if they start launching as Shotwell describes, but completion of global coverage will take some time.”
SpaceX did not respond to Inverse’s request for comment.
Shotwell also confirmed that SpaceX plans to offer a single price for its services, rather than tiered offerings. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk previously claimed on Twitter in February 2021 that Starlink is “meant to be the same price in all countries,” but also that the “cost to end users will improve every year.” The firm currently charges U.S. users a one-off $499 fee for the Starlink Kit, plus $99 per month for service.
The Inverse analysis — SpaceX’s long-stated goal, as outlined on its website, is to reach “near global coverage of the populated world in 2021.” Based on Shotwell’s comments, it looks like this goal is soon in sight.
Note that this does not mean consumers worldwide will be able to sign up to Starlink immediately. SpaceX’s ongoing beta test currently covers select users in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada. The rollout depends on licensing for each country.
Others are set to follow suit. Bloomberg reported in January 2021 that Germany, Greece, and Australia have already approved the service. CNBC also found that the company has registered itself in Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Africa, and Spain.
The satellites will also need to be able to access a ground station to offer service. These stations are operated by SpaceX to link satellites to the rest of the internet. That means a satellite will need to be able to see a ground station.
Musk explained in February 2020 that Starlink can use ground and ocean relays to bounce signals between satellites to reach the rest of the internet. SpaceX’s polar satellites launched in January 2021 used laser links, which can connect satellites to each other so one craft with a view of a ground station can share access with others.
SpaceX may reach full coverage in the next few months, but actually offering access to users around the world will take longer.
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