Unless you’ve been living in a technological black hole for the last few years, you’re probably heard of Elon Musk, and read stories about his ambitious ideas and startups. Between sexy electric cars, “hyperloop” transit systems, reusable rockets, and Mars colonies; there’s certainly no shortage of things to look forward to from the guy. In this article, we’ll explore one of his more intriguing pursuits — recently dubbed “Starlink” — and the implications it has for both the internet and the world at large. Here’s a breakdown of what SpaceX Starlink is, and why you should get pumped about it.
In 2015, Musk began probing the FCC about testing a “global broadband” system, and in September of 2017 filed applications for a satellite based broadband network called (you guessed it) Starlink, with the objective of eventually building a low-cost, satellite based broadband network capable of delivering internet access to the entire globe.
Sounds pretty straightforward — but what makes Starlink special compared to conventional satellite internet? Well, to put it plainly: while satellite internet has been around for ages, it has generally suffered from high latency, unreliable connections, and spotty service areas. With Starlink, SpaceX intends to put a “constellation” of satellites in low earth orbit, thereby providing high-speed, cable-like internet to every corner of the planet.
Much like Musk’s other ideas, this one is extremely ambitious, and in order to achieve it, SpaceX’s launch schedule is going to get busy in a way the world hasn’t seen before.
The road ahead
To give you a sense of just how formidable a challenge this is, here are some numbers: There are currently only 1,459 satellites currently in orbit around earth, along with 2,600 inactive. SpaceX will need to launch 4,425 satellites into orbit to achieve its desired coverage. That’s going to require a lot of rockets, a lot of fuel, and a lot of money.
The project is ambitious to say the least, but the payoff will presumably be immense. Imagine having blazing fast internet available all the time, no matter if you’re were in the middle of a crowded city or deep in the Amazonian jungle. Slated for as soon as 2024, this theoretical blanket of broadband isn’t that far off. If this project comes to fruition, it would make low latency internet available to locations that previously had either poor service, or none at all. The impact such a network might have on Earth remains to be seen, but Elon Musk is already thinking beyond our pale blue dot. In the long-term, SpaceX intends to develop a similar system to deploy on Mars for future colonization attempts, and will use the Starlink project to lay the foundation for those efforts.
The end of the world as we know it (in a good way)
Considering the fact that SpaceX is one of the world’s most advanced launch service providers, it already has many of the resources needed to establish and maintain a fleet of satellites — most notably its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon satellite programs. With 13 successful launches in 2017 (and counting), getting satellites into the air on a regular schedule looks like it won’t be a problem — although SpaceX will need to scale up its launch schedule considerably to make it possible.
If Musk and Co. are successful in this endeavor, they will almost certainly cause waves in the telecom industry. After all, with global internet, who needs traditional cell phone service? ISPs and telecoms will likely start to feel the heat as Starlink (and similar projects from other tech giants) progress over the next few years. So while this might be bad news for SpaceX’s competitors, individual consumers like yourself have a lot to look forward to.
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