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What is SpaceX Starlink?

The dotted white outer rim to the sides shows regular communication satellites in a geosynchronous orbit. There are roughly 500 or these currently in orbit and most of you will know them from satellite television. Yep, that’s where you point your dishes at. The ISS orbits much more closely at 400 km, in fact it’s so close you wouldn’t even notice its in space at all from up here. The red dot zips across the sky at 8 km/s in order to not fall back to ground. It counters gravity with its own inertia like a giant centrifuge.

Initial SpaceX Starlink Constellation

The Starlink constellation will have a very similar orbit but there will be many many more. This is no coincidence because SpaceX will launch from the same launch site in Florida and that’s the highest inclination they can still reach somewhat efficiently. The first batch you can see here consists of almost 1600 satellites distributed over 24 orbital planes with 66 satellites each not counting on orbit spares. These spare satellites are basically a buffer to make sure a failing satellite can be replaced quickly.

This first constellation will operate from an altitude of 550 km and will be able to communicate with itself and the ground using microwaves similar to your smartphones. But don’t get too excited about that. ( 550 km is not in reach of any regular smartphone so you will not be able to browse the web like that, at least not in regular fashion but we’ll discuss that later. The plan is to use dishes on terminals which can track the satellites by simply following them. This will change and modernize over time as SpaceX usually does. They will iterate on the design of these satellites and terminals starting with the most basic of hardware evolving them into whatever proves the best over time. They have actually launched two test articles to space already as a secondary payload. Tintin A and B named after the belgian comic’s character Tintin or “TinTin” (french pronunciation). They work for in the order of 15 minutes day as they fly by the US with high bandwidth and 25 ms of latency.

Speaking of latency, this used to be the issue with satellite communication as it was for the the most part using those geosynchronous orbits far out. The speed of light is 300.000 km/s so in order for a signal to bounce back and forth twice for a ping-pong or ping test, it would travel at least 140.000 km or roughly half a second. That’s a big delay which is fine for one directional streaming but incredibly painful for anything else, especially online gaming.

But wait a second, one directional streaming? Yep, I would argue what many don’t count with when it comes to Skylink is streaming. You could in theory use regular cellular internet to ask for data and then use Starnet to provide it in even the most remote of areas directly onto a mobile device. However, that’s just my speculation and it really depends on whether the signal strength is strong enough to be picked up with an antenna that fits inside a smartphone. ( But I can imagine companies could sell pocket dishes with receivers only which don’t require special radio licenses. Anyhow, important to note is SpaceX could bring satellite television to smartphones no matter where you are. I used to think Starlink was completely supplementary to the existing market as ground based 5G systems will offer higher speeds and a quicker latency, but as it turns out they could really threaten those valuable satellite television companies that ironically fund SpaceX today by launching satellites with them.

But that of course depends on whether SpaceX will make use of it or not. In the end there is enough streaming you can do online which will probably exploit most of the bandwidth already. What SpaceX could also do is to mount GPS transmitters to offer positioning services. Thinking about it again that could turn into a problem though since no government had direct control over it so bad actors could abuse it to guide missiles. Regular GPS can be turned on and off or even manipulated to send missles back to where they were coming from. The whole globe is tracked via infrared sensors from space so any device that exhausts a lot of heat is immediately picked up by the military which is vital not only to defend attacks but also to prevent people from even attempting it. I guess SpaceX won’t offer positioning services at least without governmental control over it or only with very low precision to tell in which country you are but not on which grassholm your sitting.

Full SpaceX Starlink Constellation

So what remains is the internet which is of course the most important communication infrastructure nowadays. It will as mentioned offer high bandwidth in the gigabit range per user but with a comparatively okay latency of round about 10 ms to local servers or and this is the main advantage 30 to 60 ms all across the globe. Yep, it will even beat a direct optical fiber connection because signals in these fibers travel at only 60-70% of the speed of light. The longer the distance the higher the advantage of such a space based system. 30 - 60 ms is not great for online shooters but totally fine for most other games and of course calls. But I didn’t came up with that one by myself. There is a great video by I think a professor called Mark Handley. He wrote a software to simulate the constellation’s links and latency of the system pretty much proving the point. I highly recommend to watch it! I have never really thought about satellites being faster than a direct optical fiber link across the ocean. And this initial constellation will as mentioned only be the first and there are many more to come. The final low earth constellation will consist of almost 5000 satellites on different orbits and this is still not all. This will more than double in the long run as SpaceX will try to utilize a very low earth orbits below 350 km and therefore below the ISS. This one is further out and will probably not fund BFR like the rest.

Yep, this whole constellation is supposed to fund SpaceX next gen rocket so it is not a 20 year plan, but supposed to be finished in just a few years from now. How can they do it you may ask? This more than doubles all satellites that are in space today. And won’t it cause crashes and debris? Yep, it is not an easy task but each teal sphere you can see here has actually a purpose. It is 60 km wide and that is exactly the safe zone around a satellite SpaceX will keep free. Given a perfectly optimized constellation, which mine isn’t, none of these spheres should ever intersect with another. That is a lot of safe zone even if one satellite should fail. It would take many months to drift 60 km off course in which SpaceX could in theory rendezvous with some kind of on orbit garbage collector that could deorbit uncontrolled satellites. What sets SpaceX apart from others is they are at the source or they are the source for that matter. Unlike other companies that try to do the same they can use free rockets. Yes, their used boosters are already paid for so they can start out by simply using and reusing those without having to buy new ones. This is an incredible advantage over any competitor which won’t be able to operate a similar fleet at a competitive price point. Maybe amazon with their New Glenn rocket but that’s another video.

Now of course, satellites won’t only fail by accident. If you do the math 5000 satellites with a lifespan of 5 years each means 20 satellites failing per week on average. They will not only have to deorbit them on their own but will also need an insane launch rate to maintain the whole fleet and they can’t yet reuse their upper stage. Building so many upper stages and satellite will make funding BFR a real challenge. (ww w. kN ews. spac e) So, and this is just my conclusion, they have to reuse their upper stage for Skynet, I mean Starlink. They can’t wait for BFR because this is meant to fund it and they can hardly fund it by building so many satellites and upper stages. Of course Elon Musk himself tweeted it out recently. They will try to turn the upper stage in some sort of Mini-BFR as I have already talked about in a previous video. Feel free to check that one out if you haven’t or want to refresh your memory. Now let’s assume they really do it and manage to reuse it.

What’s with all the debris falling to ground? 20 satellites burning up a weak or a 1000 per year is insane. According to their simulations there is a high chance of a couple kgs of metal surviving reentry and these pieces will re-enter and crash into the ground somewhere. Of course, most will do so into the ocean but some will inevitably crash into ground. They could harm people and cause fires. That’s quite a long term risk to take so I personally believe SpaceX will at least in the long run, as their technology evolves, have to come up with something new - again.

Hypothetical Reusable Satellite

Reusable satellites! Yep, mounting a small heatshield, maybe protective housing and parachute is all it takes. Mini Dragons so to speak. I’m actually pretty sure they will do it. Refueling satellites on orbit would be probably too complex as there are so many in different planes and they also can’t really upgrade them like that. But if they decide to do that the next problem will be catching them. That’s a 1000 satellites. ( How could they possibly prevent them to fall into the water? First of all SpaceX is incredibly good at aiming as they do it on their Dragon all the time. So I’m sure they could re-enter aim for somewhere near the west coast. Second, they could not use drone ships but regular flying drones. There is an older video linked below where you can see how students or graduates, I’m not sure, built software that can control a team of drones catching a ball using a net inflight. That’s crazy but I think just the right way to do it.

Catching Satellites using Drones

Mr. Steven who usually catches fairings could harbor some car sized drones that would do exactly that. Catch satellites. This could even turn into a fully autonomous launch and catch cycle. Drones catch the satellites, bring them to the rocket where they gets refueled and relaunched. Isn’t it a good idea to build a self maintaining satellite fleet that offers communication, possibly positioning to autonomous vehicles all around the globe? Hmmm wait a second… that reminds me of the documentary.. what was its name again? drum noise The Terminator. But jokes aside, what do you think guys? The Skynet comparison is surely a little exaggerated but do you believe they could disrupt yet another industry with reusable satellites or am I nuts? Do you have some cool ideas what Starlink could else be used for?