Starlink, the SpaceX satellite constellation designed to deliver internet on Earth, is being assembled with greater and greater frequency.
The system is designed to offer super fast, low-latency broadband internet, and SpaceX has applied for permission to launch up to 42,000 satellites into orbit, greatly eclipsing the approximately 5,000 satellites in orbit. CEO Elon Musk has suggested the service could fund SpaceX’s more ambitious projects, like a lunar base and a city on Mars.
This won’t be the sort of internet that can beam down to a handheld device, instead using a ground terminal to make line-of-sight contact. The company’s filings have compared the antenna to a pizza box, and Musk has described it as a "thin, flat, round UFO on a stick” with “motors to self-adjust optimal angle to view sky.”
In short, SpaceX wants to launch possibly the biggest satellite constellation in human history to send high-speed internet to pizza box-shaped devices. Here’s what you need to know about how you'll have the option to get your internet from Elon Musk.
Starlink tracker: How to find it in the sky
If you ask some astronomers, they’ll probably tell you that Starlink is irritatingly easy to spot in the sky. The satellites orbit at a low altitude of around 550 kilometers above the sea. Initial batches proved to be rather shiny, causing astronomers to complain that they were leaving bizarre streaks in the captured video of the night sky. Patrick Seitzer, a research professor at the University of Michigan’s department of astronomy, told Inverse in December 2019 that “as an astronomer, what no one expected was how bright these satellites would be.” SpaceX has been testing less-reflective designs to minimize the issue.
The easiest way to see where the Starlink constellation is right now is through Heavens Above, a non-profit website dedicated to helping people track satellites. You can move the Earth around on Heavens Above to find the location of all 60 satellites in each batch, and switch to another batch with the drop-down tool. You can also enter your location into the main homepage, then visit the predicted passes page to see when the satellite may be visible in your sky. The Heavens-Above team also produces an Android app to help you get acquainted with your sky.
How can you see them once you’ve located it? Satellite tracker Marco Langbroek told Space in November 2019 to use binoculars, and spend around 125 minutes in the dark with no lamplight to ensure your eyes are properly adjusted.
You might want to act fast – Musk claimed in February that “albedo [another word for reflectivity] will drop significantly on almost every successive launch.”
Starlink latency: What is the Starlink internet speed?
Speed and latency may become clearer with real-world use, but a 2016 filing with the FCC suggested it would reach speeds of up to one gigabit per second and a latency between 25 and 35 milliseconds. Musk stated in May 2019 that the team is aiming for “sub 20ms latency initially, sub 10ms over time, with much greater consistency than terrestrial links, as only ever a few hops to major data centers.” These quick response times are ideal for video games that require fast reflexes.
In real-world tests, SpaceX tested a relay service in 2018 with the United States Air Force, reaching around 610 megabits per second with the two test satellites.
Starlink launch schedule
Starlink’s first launch was for two test satellites, dubbed Tintin A and B. These were launched alongside Spain’s Paz satellite on February 22, 2018, using a Falcon 9 rocket that lifted off from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California.
SpaceX has since completed a series of launches for production-ready Starlink satellites. Each launch has so far sent up 60 satellites.
- The first launch was on May 24, 2019, from Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
- The second was on November 11, 2019. Lauren Lyons, an engineer with the Starlink team, said during the launch that the new satellites “will make Starlink one of, if not the largest, satellite constellation to date.”
- The third was on January 6, 2020. This launch tested out a non-reflective coating.
- The fourth was on January 29, 2020.
- The fifth was on February 17, 2020.
- A sixth is expected in March, 2020. Unlike the previous five missions, this one is expected to launch from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Musk stated in May 2019 that “each launch of 60 satellites will generate more power than Space Station & deliver 1 terabit of bandwidth to Earth.”
How much will Starlink cost?
Starlink pricing is still unclear, and the company is remaining tight-lipped. However, it has dropped a number of clues that could reveal more about Starlink monthly costs for its eventual launch. And no, Musk has already dismissed the idea that it will be free.
The monthly cost will have to be competitive with other services. HighSpeedInternet analysis found internet in the United States costs $50 per month during a promotional period and $60 thereafter. Satellite internet, necessary in rural and poorly connected areas, can cost around $100 per month.
SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell perhaps gave the closest indicator on price, when she asked CNN in October 2019: “Is anybody paying less than 80 bucks a month for crappy service? Nope. That’s why we’re gonna be successful.”
Then there is the connection kit. Musk suggested in 2015 this could cost between $100 and $300.
When will Starlink be available?
Starlink is aiming to start offering service in the northern United States and Canada in 2020. It’s then expected to offer “near global coverage of the populated world” in 2021. The website previously claimed that the former milestone would be reached after six missions, and the latter after 24 launches.
The company has started applying for regulatory approval. The United States’ Federal Communications Commission approved the company’s plans in April 2019. The Australian Communications and Media Authority added SpaceX to a list of approved operators in January. It’s also filed for permission with the International Telecommunication Union.
Starlink satellite size and design
Starlink’s satellites are compact and designed for ease of flight. Each craft weighs 573 pounds, or 260 kg. It uses four phased array antennas, paired with a solar array to power the system. Krypton-powered ion thrusters enable the satellites to adjust their orbit and deorbit at the end of life. SpaceX claims it’s the first-ever krypton-propelled spacecraft.
Those thrusters will come in handy for moving. Each satellite comes with an in-house star tracker navigation system to identify its altitude. It also has the ability to autonomously avoid debris, thanks to a system provided by the Department of Defense.
Early models lack the anti-reflective coating found on newer craft. They also lack satellite-to-satellite laser communications systems, something Musk has said won’t be a problem as it can initially bounce signals off the ocean or ground.
Can people buy stock in Starlink? Is there an initial public offering?
SpaceX is still a private company, but Starlink could offer publicly-traded stock. Company president Gwynne Shotwell said at a February JPMorgan investor event in Miami that “right now, we are a private company, but Starlink is the right kind of business that we can go ahead and take public…that particular piece is an element of the business that we are likely to spin out and go public.”
It could prove a highly lucrative business. SpaceX has been valued at around $33 billion, but the entire rocket launch industry only brings in around $5 billion per year. But Musk explained in May 2019 that internet access is a $1 trillion market, which means that if Starlink captures around five percent of that it could bring in $50 billion revenue.
Who owns Starlink?
SpaceX is the current owner and operator of Starlink. For the future? With talk of a Starlink IPO that could attract future investment, who knows how the internet service’s future ownership will shape up.