Starlink: What is Elon Musk’s space internet service and how do I get it?

The company aims to provide global internet through a constellation of over 12,000 low-orbit satellites

Adam Smith@adamndsmith
Wednesday 10 February 2021 17:32
SpaceX launches Starlink internet satellites
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Starlink, Elon Musk’s space internet project, is now open to the public.

SpaceX, the company behind the endeavour, has launched over 1000 satelines into space - a quarter of all active satellites orbiting the planet after more than a dozen missions over the last two years. 

The aim of the company is to provide global internet connections, priced at $499 for a terminal and a $99 subscription fee on top of that.

This is currently prioritised for US customers, but it will eventually come to the UK after receiving regulatory approval in January 2021.

How does Starlink work?

Starlink works by transmitting data through lasers, meaning it moves at lightspeed – the fastest that anything in the known universe can move.

One satellite operates in conjunction with another four. The V.09 Starlinks “have laser links between the satellites, so no ground stations are needed over the poles,” Mr Musk has said

“All sats launched next year will have laser links. Only our polar sats have lasers this year and are V.09.”

When will Starlink come to the UK?

It is currently unclear when Starlink will arrive in the UK, but we do have an idea of how much the service will cost.

Starlink customers will pay £439 for the satellite dish and other equipment needed to receive the signal. They will also need to pay a monthly fee of £84 to receive the service.

How fast is Starlink?

There have been conflicting reports about the speed of Starlink’s global internet, although the majority suggest that the development of thes ervice is not moving as quickly as expected.

In August 2020, speed tests conducted by Ookla showed that download speeds have ranged from 11 Mbps to 60 Mbps, while upload speeds have ranged from from 5Mbps to 18Mbps.  

Latency tests show a range between from 31ms to 94ms.

SpaceX had previously claimed that download speeds will reach1Gbps, with a latency ranging between 25 to 35 milliseconds – much faster than that which has been shown from the tests.

In October 2020, SpaceX sent out an email about a “Better Than Nothing Beta” of the Starlink service, meant to “lower [the] initial expectations” of prospective users.

“Expect to see data speeds vary from 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s and latency from 20ms to 40ms over the next several months”, the email read. “There will also be brief periods of no connectivity at all”.

It went on to say that latency was expected to reach 16ms to19ms by “summer 2021”

However, beta testers in the US have also reported download speeds higher than expected, with some getting download speeds of 174 Mbps in November 2020.

The Starlink terminal needed to access the internet service

Does Starlink there any competitors?

SoftBank-funded OneWeb is currently the closest competitor to Starlink.

OneWeb is aiming for a fleet of 648 satellites by the end of2022, building a network of roughly 7,000 satellites.

Most recently, SpaceX has been caught in a furore with Amazon’s ‘Project Kuiper’, which will also compete with Mr Musk’s endeavour.

Named after a large asteroid belt, the project aims to establish 3,236 satellites in space with the same goals as Starlink -  low-latency, high-speed broadband connectivity.

The dispute between the two companies comes as SpaceX requested US regulators allow it to operate its satellites at a lower altitude than it originally intended.

Starlink’s satellites already orbit the Earth lower than many other crafts, and Amazon claims that allowing them to operate lower would interfere with other satellites.

At the end of 2020, Amazon asked the FCC to limit SpaceX’s satellites to a minimum altitude of 580 kilometres until it could “fully evaluates the detailed record on the significant interference concerns”.

Amazon corporate counsel Mariah Dodson Shuman reportedly wrote in a letter to the FCC that “SpaceX has indicated that it is capable of operating its system without exceeding 580 km and has not demonstrated why such a condition should not be effective immediately”.

Mr Musk shot back on Twitter with criticism of Amazon: “It does not serve the public to hamstring Starlink today for an Amazon satellite system that is at best several years away from operation,” he said.

How will Starlink develop in future?

While SpaceX is expected to continue to launch satellites until it forms a 12,000-strong constellation, Amazon is not the only one voicing concerns.

The AmericanAstronomical Society has warned that the satellites could pose a considerable risk to people on the ground and in the sky.

The Satellite Constellations 1 (Satcon1) workshop also found that that constellations of bright satellites will fundamentally change ground-based optical and infrared astronomy.

The internet constellations could eventually outnumber the visible stars in the sky, the astronomers said, and could block out signals coming from further out in space.

Light being sent from the satellites, as well as bouncing off them, could also restrict astronomers from seeing light from space, and radiation could interfere with radio waves.

However, Mr Musk has claimed he is “fixing” the issue by taking steps to  reduce satellite brightness by changing the angles of the solar panels on the crafts.

The company is also working with the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory and the European radio astronomy community in order to mitigate any impact on radio astronomy activities.

There are also concerns about the amount of debris that is currently around Earth, an issue that more satellites will only contribute to.

There are currently an estimated 200,000 objects between 0.4 and four inches, and tens of thousands of objects larger than four inches, according to the United States Space Surveillance Network – with no international laws to clean up space junk.

In October 2020, part of a discarded Chinese rocket and a decommissioned Soviet satellite were on course to pass within 25metres of each other, with a ten per cent chance of a “catastrophic” collision.

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