Why SpaceX’s Starlink satellites are a miracle
By: CY Cheng
Space technology and exploration are fascinating for many astronomy enjoyers. While the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been the dominant space exploration and development agency, another promising agency is SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk. Musk, the wealthiest man in the world, has impressed people with his out-of-the-box thinking and innovative ideas. His ultimate dreams of colonizing Mars and making space transportation affordable are no different.
Starlink, one of Musk’s most ambitious projects, is a satellite internet constellation launched to provide internet access to over 40 countries. Starlink started development in 2015 and officially launched in 2019. Initially, 12,000 satellites were planned, but there are currently around 2,300. All the individual satellites are set to create a long line orbiting low Earth orbit. They are classified as smallsat-class, weighing about 500 to 1,100 pounds. The Starlink satellites were also mass-produced, lowering space-provided internet costs. In addition, constructing small, low-cost satellites makes them much easier to relaunch and repair. They are also not refuellable, which means they will de-orbit naturally when they run out of fuel. Once this happens, SpaceX can relaunch the next group to keep providing network.
Starlink currently provides internet access to 40 countries and over 400,000 users. With the development of space-provided satellites, the goal is to allow more access from rural areas with poor or zero internet connectivity. Satellites are sometimes considered more convenient and less costly than building cell towers and maintaining them in rural or hilly areas.
There were many obstacles to sending thousands of satellites into Earth’s orbit. For one, reports have shown that Starlink’s research, development, and operation cost has been around $10 billion. Another major obstacle was light pollution: chain satellites could easily interfere with the data collected by space telescopes. In November 2019, the Blanco telescope received a substantial signal loss, and 19 white lines appeared; it captured the Starlink satellites only a week after their launch. The Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory reported this to SpaceX, which stated that the Starlink satellites have minimal impact and the light emitted by the satellites can be reduced by pixel masking and image stacking, although experts have claimed the opposite. Fortunately, SpaceX tested and succeeded in lowering the albedo, which is the satellites’ brightness. They can even cooperate with scientific experiments that require orientation adjustments. SpaceX has since improved its design: a study showed that the new Starlink satellites only had 31% of the brightness of the original design.
Finding the middle ground between scientific discoveries and commercial technology should be the priority. While it is excellent that SpaceX is making internet access more available to remote areas, it is essential to remember its impact on scientific discoveries. Nevertheless, Starlink satellites are not only a scientific miracle but also fascinating to look at. Look above on a starry night; you might see dotted white lines across the horizon. Everyone should observe and appreciate technology’s advances that allow us to achieve miracles like the Starlink satellites.