According to Space News, SpaceX has launched another 60 satellites for its planned Starlink constellation on board the Falcon 9. The launch was picture perfect. After the first stage separated from the second, it landed on a drone ship that had been deployed in the Atlantic so that it could be refurbished and reused. Meanwhile, the second stage flew on to release the 60 small satellites. Later, the satellites were raised to their planned, operational orbits.
“SpaceX now has around 120 broadband satellites in low Earth orbit, surpassing the 75-satellite Iridium Next constellation as the largest telecommunications system in space. SpaceX estimates it needs at least six Starlink launches, presumably of 60 satellites each, to have a sufficient number to start offering internet access at high latitudes, such as Canada and the Northern United States. After 24 launches, SpaceX projects reaching global coverage — a milestone anticipated in 2020.”
SpaceX plans to have a constellation of 12,000 satellites to provide internet coverage to every corner of the globe. Long-range plans suggest that the company would like 30,000 satellites, providing voice, data, and imagery. However, the system is said to be economically viable at only 1,000 satellites.
The Falcon 9 is going to be busy deploying Starlink, with a planned five launches in 2019 and 24 in 2020. The satellites are equipped with collision avoidance systems and are designed to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere at the end of their operational lives. Thus, they are not likely to become space junk and contribute to a problem that has worried space policy experts for quite some time.
SpaceX is investing all this time and hardware to make more money by providing a new service. Since the first communications satellites in the 1960s, one of the main commercial benefits of space travel has been telecommunications. The ability to send signals, bounced off of satellites, to and from places on Earth has changed human civilization in the past several decades in profound ways. People can exchange ideas across thousands of miles, bringing the world community together as never before. The ability has proven to be a headache for countries with tyrannical governments, such as China, who would prefer that their citizens not be exposed to “dangerous ideas.”
Starlink, for SpaceX, serves as a means to an end. The billions per year that such a system might generate would be plowed into the company’s more speculative projects, such as the super-heavy rocket dubbed Starship. Starship is designed to launch humans and cargo to distant worlds such as the moon and Mars. With a source of income, SpaceX could become independent of government agencies such as NASA to fulfill the long-held dreams of its CEO, Elon Musk.
Two things may prove to be a complication for SpaceX’s plans. First, it is likely to have some competition for providing world-wide internet to the world. “SpaceX is competing with several other companies, notably Amazon, OneWeb and Telesat, that are also seeking to deploy hundreds or thousands of satellites to bring global internet access from space.”
Second, Nature notes, the astronomy community is up in arms at the prospect of thousands of satellites, blocking the view of telescopes, “But many astronomers worry that such ‘mega-constellations’ — which are also planned by other companies that could launch tens of thousands of satellites in the coming years — might interfere with crucial observations of the Universe. They fear that mega-constellations could disrupt radio frequencies used for astronomical observation, create bright streaks in the night sky and increase congestion in orbit, raising the risk of collisions.”
However, some workarounds likely exist that could mitigate the effects of the mega-constellations in the night sky. The satellites can have the sides facing the Earth painted black to make them appear fainter. Satellite managers and astronomers can coordinate radio frequencies to decrease interference. A strategy can be developed to react if collision avoidance systems fail.
The ultimate solution will be to move more observatories into space. NASA has already flown several astronomical missions, particularly the Hubble Space Telescope. The moon can also be used as a site for astronomical science, allowing the ability to peer into the universe farther than ever before.
The trick will be to arrange for the global internet to coincide in harmony with astronomy.