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What is Elon Musk’s new Starlink service?

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SpaceX Falcon 9

SpaceX prepares for its global internet network by launching 60 satellites into orbit

In Depth
Friday, May 24, 2019 - 11:44am

Elon Musk has laid the foundations for his new Starlink internet service by launching 60 satellites into orbit aboard a SpaceX rocket. 

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Musk’s aerospace firm vaulted the satellites into space using one of its reusable Falcon 9 rockets. The single-booster craft lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 10.30pm on Thursday (2.30am UK time on Friday), The Daily Telegraph reports 

The Falcon 9’s main booster successfully landed on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean shortly after lift-off, before the communications satellites were deployed into low-Earth orbit less than an hour later, the newspaper says. 

According to Reuters, SpaceX claims that it may take 24 hours before it can ensure that the satellites are operating as planned. Each of the 60 satellites weighs 227kg, making them the heaviest payload carried by a SpaceX rocket to date. 

The satellites mark the “initial phase” of a cluster that will beam internet towards parts of the world where access to web services is limited, the news site says. It’s also hoped that the project will “generate much-needed cash” for Musk’s “larger ambitions in space”.

What is Starlink?

Starlink is Musk’s new internet service provider that aims to “connect the globe with reliable and affordable high-speed broadband services” using a “constellation of satellites”, the Financial Times reports.

Though space-based internet services exist, the FT claims they are “typically expensive compared to surface-based technology”, lack worldwide coverage and are unreliable. 

Starlink’s satellites, meanwhile, will orbit the Earth at a lower altitude, providing internet speeds “that are comparable to ground-based cable and fibre optic networks”, the FT notes. 

After six more launches, resulting in around 400 orbiting satellites in total, Musk says Starlink will be able to offer some form of connectivity to users on the ground, ArsTechnica reports. 

The service will have “significant” connectivity with a dozen launches, while 24 missions would bring internet access to almost every nation, Musk said.

Are there too many satellites in space already?

It’s certainly becoming an issue, given that rocket launches are cheaper and therefore satellite missions are more frequent.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a US-based non-profit science advocacy organisation, says there are more than 2,000 satellites currently in Earth’s orbit. Approximately 901 of those are from the US alone, though that figure is likely to be higher today as it was calculated five months ago. 

Scientists fear that “congested orbital highways” could result in a collision that would send space debris hurtling in all directions at high speed, the BBC reports. This could be highly destructive, as even the smallest piece of debris could cause significant damage to critical structures, such as the International Space Station. 

The Starlink satellites, however, can automatically “track orbital debris and... autonomously avoid it”, the broadcaster adds. Around 95% of the materials that make up a Starlink satellite will burn up when re-entering Earth’s atmosphere once decommissioned.

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