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What is Starlink? Elon Musk's satellite internet service explained

This service could offer high-speed internet to places where no such service could be normally made.
May 4, 2022

The dream of accessing the internet no matter where you live might become a reality sooner than you might think. In 2015, SpaceX, the company owned by technology billionaire Elon Musk, announced it was developing such a service called Starlink. But what is Starlink, exactly? Keep reading as we reveal more about this upcoming and highly ambitious space internet service.

Read: Try SpaceX’s docking simulator

How does Starlink work?

Once it becomes fully operational, Starlink will offer internet access from virtually anywhere on the planet. Elon Musk’s Starlink effort aims to launch thousands of small satellites into low Earth orbit. They will then be able to transmit fast internet signals down to Earth.

What do the satellites look like?

Each satellite in the Starlink project weighs just 573 pounds (260kg). The body of each satellite is flat, and up to 60 of them can fit into one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets. Once put in orbit, a single large solar array comes out to power the satellite. The central portion includes four powerful antennas for internet transmissions. Each satellite relies on a set of lasers to connect with four others in orbit. Finally, they have ion thrusters that use krypton gas. This allows them to stay in orbit longer, even at these lower distances from Earth.

How fast will Starlink internet speeds be?

The SpaceX Starlink satellites will remain in low orbit, around 350 miles above the Earth. Because of that relatively short distance, SpaceX claims the latency should be between 25ms and 35ms. That should be fast enough for most internet tasks, including gaming. Download speeds should also be pretty quick, at about 1Gbps. SpaceX has yet to confirm what upload speeds will be.

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By comparison, the current HughesNet satellite internet service offers download speeds of up to 25Mbps. However, its latency speeds are much slower, at about 600ms.

A recent thread on Reddit claims that the early beta tests for Starlink speeds show download speeds of between 37Mbps and 60Mbps, with upload speeds between 4.5Mbps and 17.70Mbps. However, these speeds have been unconfirmed by SpaceX.  In a CNN article, emails reportedly sent by Starlink to possible beta testers stated that speeds for them would be “50Mb/s to 150Mb/s and latency from 20ms to 40ms.” The emails added that Starlink expects to improve on those speeds in the coming months.  Indeed, a Reddit thread on download speeds shows that they are being recorded at 150Mbps at the moment.

How many satellites have launched so far?

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SpaceX launched its first test satellites in 2018. This was followed by the first official 60 satellites for the service in 2019. The most recent launch took place in mid-November 2021, with further launches planned for each month of the year. As of this writing, SpaceX has put up about 2,400 satellites into orbit. It’s well beyond the initial projection of 1,440 satellites, and that number means that SpaceX has completed its first “shell” of satellites.

How many satellites will be needed for the service?

The company has received permission from the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to put as many as 12,000 SpaceX Starlink satellites above the planet. It will form a kind of “Starlink constellation” in the sky. SpaceX would like to put even more satellites above the Earth. Ultimately, the “Starlink constellation” could have as many as 42,000 satellites in orbit.

How much will Starlink internet access cost?

In a CNN article, an email reportedly from Starlink is inviting people to try out the service. The email initially claimed that it would cost $499 for a one-time cost for the ground hardware and $99 a month for the basic internet service. Starlink has recently developed a new dish that is smaller and lighter than before, named Dishy McFlatface. However, the installation price has risen to $599, and the monthly cost is now $110. If you plan to relocate your Starlink satellite dish, you’ll also incur a $25 monthly fee.

By comparison, the HughesNet service costs as much as $150 a month, with a 50GB high-speed data plan (at 25Mbps) and horrible latency that makes gaming impossible, and even tasks like streaming can be quite the chore.

When will Starlink internet be available?

Musk claimed in a Twitter post in April 2020 that a private beta will begin around three months from that point. While not confirmed, it appears that a private beta test has started for select users. Musk added that a public beta would begin in about six months. In late October, according to CNN, people who expressed interest in signing up for the service received emails asking them to sign up for what the company called the “Better Than Nothing Beta” test. In a filing with the Federal Communications Commission in February 2021, SpaceX stated that it has signed up 10,000 customers for its Starlink beta test. The full service is expected to launch sometime in 2021.

In December 2020, the Federal Communications Commission awarded SpaceX $856 million. The deal is designed to support Starlink to offer internet access to rural parts of the US in 35 states.

Where is SpaceX Starlink internet available on Earth?

Musk stated the private beta would first be available for people in “high latitudes.” The company has clarified that the beta would launch first for residents in Canada and the northern portions of the United States. Elon Musk has also announced plans to bring Starlink to the Amazon rainforest to help monitor illegal deforestation. Tesla does not currently plan to bring Starlink to China in any capacity.

Now, Musk has refocused Starlink’s efforts in order to assist in the war in Ukraine. It’s estimated that 150,000 Ukrainians use the service daily, despite Russian efforts to scramble the satellite signals. Overall, there are approximately 250,000 Starlink subscribers throughout the rest of the world.

Other frequently asked questions

When SpaceX first launches a new set of satellites, you can briefly see them with the naked eye. However, they soon go higher up into orbit. When that happens, they become much less visible, but they could still be visible with the naked eye in certain circumstances, and certainly via telescopes.

The reason is mostly that they are orbiting much lower than normal communication satellites. According to a Vox article, many astronomers have concerns that the plan to put as many as 12,000 or more Starlink satellites into orbit could cause a lot more light pollution, which could interfere with their Earth-bound telescopes. SpaceX says it works to reduce light pollution from those satellites, including experimenting with a dark coating on the surface.

There have been some concerns raised about the amount of space debris that could be generated with thousands of Starlink satellites in orbit. According to this article, many experts feel they could cause issues with both crewless and crewed spacecraft. However, SpaceX claims that the satellites will use their onboard thrusters to avoid other orbiting crafts.

Fiber internet speeds top out at 10Gbps. Starlink’s download speeds are supposed to be up to 1Gbps, but again there’s no word on upload speeds. Therefore, it doesn’t look like Starlink will be faster than fiber.

No. It is designed to offer fixed internet services to a home or business. The Reddit user Darkpenguin22 recently posted up images of what he claims was a prototype Starlink tracker terminal in Wisconsin. The small circular Starlink tracker antenna has been called by some people a “UFO on a stick.” Having said that, smartphones could connect to a Starlink data connection and its home network via its Wi-Fi hardware.

No. As we have stated before, the service is designed for direct fixed connections to homes or businesses. It is not the same as mobile 5G technology.

That’s a look at the upcoming Starlink SpaceX service. Will you be using this space internet service?

Will you sign up for Starlink when it launches?

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