T E C H N O L O G Y – I N T E R N A T I O N A L
Ahkyar Sahaba Reeham
Elon Musk, modern day Tony Stark and a role model for the youth, with his prominent role in automotive engineering, aerospace, telecommunication, transportation, infrastructure, healthcare, and AI — is at it again, and this time with something that promises to solve the widespread online connectivity issues of the world, and brings internet to the remotest parts of the world: STARLINK.
What is Starlink?
Announced in 2015 by SpaceX, one of Elon Musk’s two most talked about entities, Starlink is a satellite internet constellation that will consist of thousands of small satellites orbiting around the earth. SpaceX shuttles will transport the satellites to low earth orbit (LEO) from where they would connect to the antennas in our homes and provide internet at a reasonable cost. Since then, despite plans to launch two prototypes in 2016, not much was done in the next couple of years. But, finally in February 2018, SpaceX launched 2 satellites (Tintin A and B) for a test flight which proved successful.
And in March of the same year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted the company permission to launch their satellites. After that, at an estimated cost of US$10 billion, SpaceX made a plan to launch 44 such satellites every month for the next 60 months to launch the 2200 satellites outer space which will meet the deadline of half the satellites within 6 years and complete the full system within 9 years—as otherwise they might risk losing their dedicated radio bands. The spacecraft designed for this work was Falcon 9, a high-performance, low-cost spacecraft that could launch 60 Starlink Satellites at a time in the outer orbits and whose boosters could be reused for its automatic capability to land in a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. From then on, continuously newer satellites are being launched every month.
As of 27 January this year, SpaceX has launched 1035 Starlink Satellites. Currently, they are planning to deploy 12000 satellites with launches every two weeks in 2021. This number could be extended to 42000 in the near future.
Interestingly enough, one can see the trail of the satellites in the night sky in some places of the world if they get lucky.
Problems with Starlink
When the satellites finally reach the end of their lifetime in 4/5 years they will use the remaining fuel to push themselves out of the orbit into a fiery death, burning themselves up completely in the Earth’s atmosphere. This will play a crucial role since if not done correctly, the debris from the dead satellites could lead to the Kessler Syndrome.
The Kessler syndrome, also called the Kessler effect, collisional cascading or ablation cascade, is a scenario in which the density of objects in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) is high enough that collisions between objects could cause a cascade where each collision generates space debris and increases the likelihood of further collisions. This domino effect can cause the end of all space exploration.
As calculated by NASA, a 1 centimetre ‘paint fleck’ travelling at 10km/s (22,000 mph) can cause the same damage as a 550-pound object travelling 60 miles per hour on Earth. If the size of the shard was increased to 10 centimetres, such a projectile would have the force of 7 kilograms of TNT and could potentially destroy spacecrafts if they hit vital parts. So, if a chain reaction of exploding space junk did occur, space programmes would indeed be in jeopardy, especially for the missions that go beyond LEO, like the ones planned to Mars.
And although Starlink satellites have a built-in collision-avoidance mechanism, in case of ‘dead’ or faulty satellites—which were seen 5% of the time in the first batch—the mechanism might not work. And so the dead satellites would act as large space junks, waiting to hit and destroy functioning ones.
Besides, core aspects of our modern life – GPS, television, military, and scientific research — all of that would also be under threat due to the glare of Starlink satellites in early hours of the morning. Astronomy would be especially affected as it almost solely depends on detecting faint light from distant objects. To combat this SpaceX launched DarkSat, a prototype with black anti-reflective coating to reduce reflection of sunlight. Though, 50% darker, experts say they are still too bright than what is needed.
Why might Starlink be the future of broadband connection?
At present there are only 2 Internet Satellites other than Starlink, namely ViaSat and HughesNet. Both are not only US-based but are also quite expensive and give limited bandwidth. Their 20 mbps plan with monthly usage caps off at only 30 GB/month and costs $90. While Elon Musk’s Starlink can be found worldwide with the help of the more than 42000 satellites expected to be deployed in near future.
The satellites in each orbital performs a different purpose. The farther the satellite is from the earth, the wider the area it can serve, however, it comes at a cost of increased latency. Hence, Starlink will fly more satellites at a lower orbit for increased bandwidth and lesser latency in areas where speed is needed most, while high orbit satellites will act as backhaul gates sending data between the orbits.
Currently, the Starlink Satellites kit costs $499 with a monthly subscription fee of $80 and can provide an internet speed of 50-150 Mbps and latency of 20 to 50 ms. The company hopes to double this speed by the end of the year. The $80 subscription will have unlimited bandwidth and can be used anywhere if you are in range of the router that comes along with a personal antenna for you to place under a clear sky so that it can locate and connect you to a Starlink satellite. Moreover, we can expect almost no internet failure from satellite connection as they would not be affected by weather, whereas heavy showers or strong winds are able to knock down poles of the ground-based connections and affect the internet.
Ground-based internet connections, cable and fibre, are still faster with the former providing a maximum speed of 500 Mbps and the latter of 1 Gbps, though average speeds are much lower. If the speed doubles by the end of the year, it can put Starlink on par with cable at least. But Starlink’s real advantage is it’s ability to reach the remotest places.
The World Economic Forum states that over 4 billion people still don’t have an internet connection, especially in developing countries. Starlink could change the scenario here as it can provide high speed, low-cost internet anywhere in the world.
Will Starlink be available soon?
Currently, Starlink is doing its beta testing in Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, some parts of the USA, and Canada. People who are in the beta testing programmes of Starlink in Australia are satisfied with their internet speed, which on average has been around 100 Mbps. Besides, Starlink is also opening branches in other parts of the world on a pre-order basis and they will get the service as soon as it arrives in their country. Though, there have been no news of any plans to come to Bangladesh, SpaceX considers our neighbouring nation, India, right now as a major target.
The average home internet speed in Bangladesh is around 30 Mbps whereas Starlink can provide up to 150 Mbps with an average of 100.5 Mbps. Even Dhaka and its nearby areas have a net connection that is often slow and unstable, let alone the people in rural areas. We spend more of our call money with the ISP than on the internet itself and still see no improvement. So, giving Starlink’s faster internet connection with 24/7 customer service a go may prove to be worthwhile if and when it becomes available.
Reeham says that he is calm and collected, but he is actually not.