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Starlink explained, what you need to know about Elon Musk’s satellite internet company


The SpaceX Falcon 9 took off from the Kennedy Space Center in May last year.

Joe Burbank / Orlando Sentinel / Tribune News Service / Getty Images

When you think of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, chances are you think of it too are electric car company Tesla or are space exploration SpaceX (not to mention its history of stirring up controversy on social media, or smoking weed with Joe RoganMaybe you just know him as the richest person on earthafter passing Jeff Bezos to take first place a month ago.

When you think of Musk, something else quickly comes to mind: a company called Starlink that is trying to sell internet connections to almost everyone on the planet through a growing network of private satellites orbiting Earth.

After years of development within SpaceX – and almost certainly $ 885.5 million in grants from the Federal Communications Commission late 2020 – Starlink’s progress appears to accelerate in 2021. In January, after about three years of successful launches, the project surpassed 1,000 satellites placed in orbit. Musk’s company announced this earlier in February Starlink now serves more than 10,000 customersNow the service is engaged in extend preorders to even more potential customers, with people who currently lack access to high-speed internet as one of its top priorities.

All of that makes Starlink worth keeping an eye on in 2021. For now, here’s everything you need to know about it.

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Starlink space-based internet, explained


OK, start at the beginning – what exactly is Starlink?

Technically a division within SpaceX, Starlink is also the name of the spaceflight company’s growing network – or ‘constellation’ – of orbital satellites. The development of that network began in 2015, with the first prototypes of satellites launched into orbit in 2018.

In the years since, SpaceX has put more than 1,000 Starlink satellites into orbit during more than 20 successful launches. In January, for its first Starlink mission of 2021, SpaceX launched 60 satellites into orbit from the Kennedy Space Center using the landable, relaunchable Falcon 9 orbital rocket. Subsequent launches, including four more in February – two of which have already been successfully completed – will bring the total number of satellites launched to 1,265.

And those satellites can connect my house to the internet?

That’s the idea, yes.

Like existing satellite Internet providers such as HughesNet or ViaSat, Starlink wants to sell Internet access – especially to people in rural areas and other parts of the world who do not yet have access to super-fast broadband.

spacex hardware kit

SpaceX’s Starlink hardware includes a satellite dish and router that you set up at home to receive the signal from space.


“Starlink is ideally suited for parts of the world where connectivity has typically been a challenge,” the Starlink website states. “Starlink is not tied to traditional ground infrastructure and can provide fast broadband internet in locations where access was unreliable or not available at all.”

All you need to do to establish the connection is set up a small satellite dish in your home to pick up the signal and pass the bandwidth on to your router. Starlink offers an app for Android and iOS that uses augmented reality to help customers choose the best location and position for their receivers.

Starlink’s service is currently only available in select regions, but the service now offers more than 10,000 customers, and the coverage map will continue to grow as more satellites enter the constellation. Ultimately, Starlink hopes to cover the entire planet with a usable super-fast Wi-Fi signal.

How fast is Starlink’s internet service?

“Users can expect data rates to range from 50 to 150 megabits per second and latency from 20 to 40 milliseconds in most locations in the coming months,” said Starlink’s website, while also warning of short periods of no connection at all. “As we launch more satellites, install more ground stations and improve our network software, the data speed, latency and uptime will improve dramatically.”

What does Starlink cost?

Starlink has started accepting pre-orders from customers interested in joining the company’s “Better Than Nothing” beta programThe cost of the service is billed at $ 99 per month, plus taxes and fees, plus an initial payment of $ 499 for the mountable satellite dish and router to install at home.

Starlink says it takes orders from customers on a first-come, first-served basis, and some pre-orders can take up to six months to fulfill.

Why satellites actually? Isn’t fiber faster?

Fiber, or the Internet delivered via ground-laid fiber optic cable, is indeed much faster than satellite Internet – but, as companies like Google will tell you, there is nothing quick about implementing the infrastructure needed to get fiber into people’s homes. That’s not to say there’s anything easy about photographing satellites in space, but with less sharp competitors – and with far less red tape – there’s every reason to believe services like Starlink will reach the majority of the underserved . communities long before fiber ever will. Recent FCC filings also suggest that Starlink could eventually double as a dedicated telephone service as well.

And don’t forget we’re talking about Elon Musk here. SpaceX is the only company on the planet with a landable, reusable rocket capable of delivering charge after charge into orbit. That’s a huge advantage in the commercial space race. In addition, Musk said in 2018 that Starlink will help SpaceX generate the revenue necessary to fund the company’s long-held ambition to establish a base on Mars.

When that day arrives, it is also likely that SpaceX will attempt to establish a satellite constellation on the red planet as well. That means Starlink customers may double as guinea pigs for the wireless Martian networks of the future.

“If you send a million people to Mars, you better provide them with a way to communicate,” SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said in 2016 of the company’s long-term vision for Starlink. ‘I don’t think the people who go to Mars will be satisfied with horrible old-fashioned radios. They want their iPhones or Androids on Mars. ”

Still, with top speeds currently pegged at 150Mbps, Starlink’s satellite internet won’t get anywhere near the gigabit speeds that fiber can reach – and that’s because of the sheer distance each transmission has to travel in its round trip from your home. to the stratosphere. It’s a factor that also increases latency, which is why you’ll often notice uncomfortable pauses in the conversation when talking to someone over a satellite connection.

That said, Starlink promises to improve existing expectations for satellite connections by placing satellites in orbit at lower altitudes than before – 60 times closer to Earth’s surface than traditional satellites, according to the company’s claims. This low Earth orbit approach means that there is less distance for those Starlink signals to travel – and thus less latency. We will let you know how these claims hold up once we can test the Starlink network ourselves.

What about bad weather and other obstacles?

That’s definitely one of the drawbacks of satellite internet. According to Starlink’s FAQ, the receiver is capable of melting snow that lands on it, but it cannot do anything about the surrounding snow build-up and other obstructions that could block view to the satellite.

“We recommend installing Starlink in a location where snow accumulation and other obstacles will not block the field of view,” the FAQ reads. “Heavy rain or wind can also affect your satellite internet connection, leading to slower speeds or a rare outage.”

Are there any other issues with Starlink’s satellites?

There is much concern about the proliferation of private satellites in space, and controversy in astronomical circles on the impact of low-orbit satellites on the night sky itself.

This long exposure image of a distant galaxies from the Lowell Observatory in Arizona is marred by diagonal lines of light bouncing off Starlink satellites shortly after their launch in 2019.

Victoria Girgis / Lowell Observatory

In 2019, shortly after the deployment of Starlink’s first broadband satellites, the International Astronomical Union has issued an alarming statement warning of unforeseen consequences for star gazing and for the protection of nocturnal animals.

“We do not yet understand the impact of thousands of these visible satellites scattered across the night sky and despite their good intentions, these satellite constellations can threaten both,” the statement read.

Since then, Starlink has begun testing a variety of new designs intended to reduce the brightness and visibility of its satellites. In early 2020, the company tested a “DarkSat” satellite with a special, non-reflective coating. Later, in June 2020, the company launched a “VisorSat” satellite with a special sunshade visor. In August, Starlink launched another batch of satellites – this time they were all equipped with sights.

“We want to make sure we’re doing the right thing to ensure that small children can see through their telescopes,” Shotwell said. “It’s cool for them to see a Starlink. But they should be looking at Saturn, at the moon … and not want to be disturbed. ‘

“The Starlink teams have worked closely with leading astronomers around the world to gain a better understanding of the specifics of their observations and technical changes we can make to reduce the satellite’s brightness,” the website said. from the company.

OK. Where can I learn more about Starlink?

We will continue to discuss Starlink’s progress from various angles here on CNET, so stay tuned. Also be sure to read Eric Mack’s excellent profile of Starlink – it highlights the project’s objectives and challenges, as well as its implications for disadvantaged internet users and for astronomers working with light pollution obstructing the view of the night sky.

In addition, we expect to test the Starlink network itself later this year. When we know more about how the satellite service stacks up as an internet provider, we’ll tell you all about it.

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