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Starlink: New stars in the sky

Last November, British stargazers were surprised to see something in the night skies that seemed, well, alien. A long line of starlike points crossed the sky, seeming to follow one another. Some amateur astronomers may have been ready to contact SETI, but most knew exactly what they were.

Starlink.

In another bold move by Elon Musk, Spacex has stepped up the delivery of tiny LEO (Low Earth Orbit) satellites poised to bring affordable high-speed network access to the entire globe. With 60 micro-satellites per Falcon 9 rocket launch, there are 961 spread across 72 orbital planes as of January, 2021. In the future, up to 400 satellites will be lobbed into orbit on a single Spacex Starship rocket. The lofty goal of StarLink is affordable high-speed internet and IOT links to every point on the globe.

Spacex’s ambitions are not without controversy. Astronomers and amateur stargazers contend that the massive constellation of artificial objects will obstruct the clear view of the night sky, and even potentially set back research in Astro-Science. They are concerned that 12,000 potential ‘false stars’ will clutter up research viewing for generations to come.

On the other side of the coin, Starlink has the potential of bringing the Internet to places and people that have been denied it in the past – particularly in the third world. Starlink will enable remote monitoring of IOT devices in places that previously had no cell or internet coverage. With the current constellation, price and speed are somewhat underwhelming, compared to terrestrial alternatives. At $99/mo (and $499 on-time cost for small dish and gear), and speeds of 100 to 150Mbps, Starlink doesn’t scream – but that will change. As the constellation grows, so will speed. Starlink is already testing some pretty cool stuff – like satellite-to-satellite laser based communication that will allow packet to ‘jump’ between satellites, negating the need to bounce back to earth and up to another satellite before reaching the user. Latency reports have been pretty good for a satellite based system, at 20 to 40ms. LEO shortens the height to around 800mi altitude, compared Geo-synchronous solutions of the past that sit WAY up at over 22,000 miles. Even with signals moving at the speed of light, this dramatically reduces the propagation delay and latency.

The aforementioned Laser based, satellite-to-satellite connection will be a boon for folks in the extreme northern and southern latitudes, as the Starlink satellites that will be loft into a polar orbit will not have ground stations to relay. Once Starlink is fully deployed, these sparsely covered areas will now have access to the same internet access that the lower latitudes have enjoyed, helping remote research stations to stay connected.

Starlink is just starting, but when the full constellation is ready, users will have one more reliable alternative to cable, fiber, geo-synch satellites and fixed-mobile internet. It will be interesting to watch this new service unfold.

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