SpaceX’s “Starlink” satellites: This is what’s behind Elon Musk’s project

Spacex starlink satellites. Elon musk fast internet system.
Spacex Starlink.

The “Starlink” project by SpaceX and Elon Musk aims to make high-speed Internet available everywhere. Many satellites are required for this – that is a source of criticism.

  • The private space company SpaceX of Elon Musk wants fast Internet from space
  • For this purpose, thousands of satellites are to be brought into orbit
  • Astronomers have criticized the “Starlink” project from the start

The private space company SpaceX is not only causing a stir with its recycling rockets “Falcon 9” or the fact that it is the first private company to transport astronauts into space. Even the “StarLink” project of SpaceX is hotly debated – among other things because the result can be seen already in the skylights, which consist of satellites, pulling visible across the dark sky.

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“Starlink”: this name stands for SpaceX’s ambitious project, whose founder is the billionaire and Tesla boss Elon Musk. SpaceX uses its recycling rockets “Falcon 9” not only to transport the manned space capsule “Crew Dragon”, but also to send countless satellites into space, which in the future should enable fast Internet from space in all corners of the world. “Starlink” will bring high-speed Internet to places “where Internet access was unreliable, expensive, or unavailable,” the company said.

To this end, thousands of satellites are to be transported into earth orbits in the future. A global network will be set up there to provide Internet access – in 2020 in the USA and Canada and as early as 2021 worldwide.

Three expansion stages are planned for the “Starlink” network:

  • First expansion stage: Almost 1600 “Starlink” satellites are to orbit the Earth at an altitude of 550 kilometers
  • Second expansion stage: About 2800 “Starlink” satellites are to orbit the Earth at an additional altitude of 1100 to 1325 kilometers
  • Third expansion stage: Up to 7500 “Starlink” satellites are to orbit the Earth at an additional altitude of 340 kilometers in a polar orbit

In total, SpaceX has been granted temporary licenses until 2027 for the launch of up to 11,927 “Starlink” satellites. Also, SpaceX applied for the launch of a further 30,000 “Starlink” satellites to orbit the Earth at altitudes of 330 to 580 kilometers.

The “Starlink” satellites of SpaceX are visible in the night sky. In this case, as a tracer, because the image was exposed for a long time.

This global satellite network aims to provide high-speed Internet with up to 1 GB/s for every user on Earth. As soon as about 1000 “Starlink” satellites are in space, the “Starlink” project should be “economically justifiable,” according to SpaceX boss Elon Musk. “If we put significantly more satellites into orbit, that’s an excellent thing, which means there will be a great demand for them,” Musk continues.

Each “Starlink” satellite weighs about 260 kilograms and is very flat. The satellites can be stacked for launch in the “Falcon 9” rocket. So far, 60 “Starlink” satellites are sent into space per launch. After seven launches, 420 “Starlink” satellites are in orbit around the Earth (as of April 23, 2020).

The first two prototypes of the “Starlink” satellites were already sent into space in February 2018. The first launch with 60 satellites took place in May 2019 – and immediately triggered a great controversy. In the days following the launch, the satellites were very bright and visible in the evening sky. A satellite tracker from the Netherlands had filmed satellites’ widely visible train in the sky and started a discussion with his video: Are the Starlink satellites disturbing the night sky? Is the night sky even being “littered”?

On Twitter, SpaceX founder Elon Musk quickly explained that the goal was “possibly to help billions of economically disadvantaged people,” but the outcry could not be contained. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) expressed “concern about these satellite constellations”. It is concerned about “the principle of a dark and radio silent sky” and “resource for all mankind and also for the protection of nocturnal animals”.

Many astronomers complained publicly. On Twitter, astronomers keep coming back with examples of how the “Starlink” satellites affect their work. In November 2019, Clarae Martínez-Vázquez, who works at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile, used an image to illustrate how the satellites thwart their work: As many as 19 “Starlink” satellites would have interfered with a long-term recording, “the train of Starlink satellites lasted longer than five minutes,” she wrote on Twitter, adding: “Pretty depressing… That’s not cool!”

Meanwhile, the IAU and the American Astronomical Society (AAS) are working with astronomers on the problem, and talks with SpaceX have taken place, according to IAU. The company launched a “Starlink” satellite in January 2020, which has a different coating and has been given the nickname “DarkSat”. Its surface may reflect less sunlight. In the meantime, SpaceX has announced the measures it intends to take to darken the “Starlink” satellites.

As the IAU further reports, SpaceX is also working on software that will allow observatories to bypass “Starlink” satellites by writing appropriate programs.

But is this the solution to the “Starlink” problem? The experts are not only bothered by the sunlight that is reflected by the satellites and can disturb the sensitive telescopes. They are also concerned about the effects that the radio signals from the “Starlink” satellites could have on astronomical observations with radio telescopes.

Fast Internet from space lets number of satellites shoot up

Although Elon Musk emphasized on Twitter some time ago that he would make sure “that Starlink does not affect discoveries in astronomy”, he also said that he would not use Starlink for any other purpose. But the scene is still skeptical. After all, SpaceX is not the only company with plans for a global satellite constellation that will provide fast Internet from space. Amazon is also pursuing similar goals. Competitor OneWeb had already launched the first satellites, but had to file for bankruptcy in the wake of the Corona crisis.

SpaceX, on the other hand, is continuing unwaveringly in the Corona crisis. There are now 420 “Starlink” satellites orbiting the Earth and the mission is expected to continue. Critics of the mega-satellite constellations’ plan are particularly disturbed because the number of active satellites in orbit is being increased many times over. In September 2019, 2218 active satellites were orbiting the Earth. Also, there are countless discarded satellites and space debris, down to the smallest particles.

Since the launch of the first satellite “Sputnik 1” in 1957, more than 8500 satellites have been launched. The plans of SpaceX alone would increase this number significantly within a short time. If SpaceX continues to make progress with its “Starlink” project as planned, it could happen in the future that more satellites will be visible in the night sky for a short time than you can see stars with the naked eye. Under perfect observation conditions, this is a maximum of 3000 – in light-polluted cities, even less than 100.

Read a comment about SpaceX’s “Starlink” project: “Starlink” of SpaceX is filling up the night sky and the earth orbit.

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