People often refer to Elon Musk as the real-life Tony Stark. His aspiring projects are evidence of this statement. Be it making a monkey play pong with its mind using Neuralink or shaking the entire EV market with Tesla, Elon’s projects are always innovative, tracing its roots from deep ambitions.
SpaceX, one of the high-expectation ventures of Elon Musk in terms of variety and innovation, is launching thousands of Lower Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites. This is expected to make a mega-constellation around the planet, thereby delivering high-speed internet from space to your home.
However, there are some major concerns around Starlink. Astronomers are worried that it will change the night skies, and not for good. It isn’t only about Starlink and stargazing, but we should consider the potential of Starlink’s mega-constellation before we get into it.
What Does Starlink Offer?
So what’s so special about Starlink? Starlink beta has delivered up to 120Mbps speeds with latency as low as 34ms. This is far superior to even the fastest wired internet connections available in the market today.
Since SpaceX started its Starlink Beta in the U.S., Reddit users were posting Speedtest results, with an average speed of 40-42 Mbps. For beta testing, it is an amazing speed.
Once fully functional, Musk even claims Starlink can deliver up to 1Gbps per user, with latency as low as 19ms. This would translate to a fast and stable connection with minimum to no lag.
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Starlink has some more bells and whistles. There are reports of the U.S. Army planning to use Starlink satellites to get unjammable navigation. The same reports also say that Starlink can get a user’s precise location up to 70 centimeters.
If we tap into this potential, we can use it for precise, unjammable navigation. So, if Starlink satellites are so amazing, what’s the problem with having them around the planet?
Problems With Starlink
Starlink And Stargazing
There will be more than 10,000 Starlink satellites around the planet in the coming years. Unfortunately, one of the major problems with these satellites is that they light up the night sky.
It may be a boon for satellite watchers; For astronomers, it can be a nightmare. According to a study by Jonathan C. McDowell, most Starlink satellites have a visual magnitude range of 3 to 7. This makes them the dimmest object visible to the naked eye, but they would be clearly visible through dark sites used for stargazing.
The satellites will be visible to observers, which means Starlink and stargazing don’t really go together. Nevertheless, McDowell concludes his paper by saying that the impact will be significant for certain types of observations, like “twilight observations and long-exposure observations.”
SpaceX has been active on the issue, but the current batch of Starlink satellites in space remains visible. The website says that the company has been conversing with the AAS (American Astronomical Society) to set targets for lower visibility on future satellites.
Expensive And Sometimes Not Needed
Another study on the mega constellation suggests that Starlink will provide expensive internet services to places where it isn’t required. Starlink beta services start at $99/month.
In most parts of the world, the current ground-based internet is cheaper than Starlink’s space internet. However, the study also points out that Starlink aims to serve only 3 to 4% of the world’s population.
Starlink’s bandwidth is also suitable only for low to mid-density populations. This means people in heavily populated areas won’t be able to use it that well. SpaceX’s official website says it’s working on serving more people with high-speed internet, but there’s no word about affordable internet.
Starlink And Space Debris
What will happen when a Starlink satellite fails? It is a simple question with a slightly complicated answer. At the beginning of its test, Starlink satellites had a 5% failure rate. The latest batch reportedly has a 3% failure rate.
While this is a good figure, it concerns if we look at SpaceX’s plans of a mega constellation. Even at 1% failure, it would mean dozens of satellites burning up in the lower Earth Orbit over time.
Eventually, we’ll be at a higher risk of reaching a point where a collision between two objects in orbit will create debris that will cause a domino effect of crashes. This is also called Kessler’s syndrome.
Lack Of Laws
Starlink and Stargazing is not the only problem that we have at hand. We don’t have dedicated laws to govern the use of Starlink. Laws are essential to regulate space internet projects around the world.
Also, if there are rules in place, issues like Starlink interfering with astronomy and space debris can be addressed. Without discussions, the world is likely to have thousands of satellites surrounding it, with no regulations whatsoever.
Conclusion: Astronomy Or The Internet?
The choice between Internet access and astronomy is not a binary one, but we are racing toward a tipping point of no return and a future with tens to hundreds of thousands of satellites.Meredith L. Rawls et al 2020 Res. Notes AAS 4 189
We need fast and reliable internet connections for the number of smart gadgets coming up. However, sacrificing the night sky in the process doesn’t sound like a good deal.
Advances like Starlink are bold and ambitious. Equal attention should be paid to their sustainability and effects on the people using them. Dark sites for Stargazing will have satellites hovering over. Lower Earth orbit will have increasing space trash, and the fruit of all this will be unaffordable to most.
I once spent a night near Hanle, Ladakh. The place has one of the darkest night skies in India and is also home to one of the world’s highest observatories. Some might say the thought of seeing a satellite during camping pollutes the sky, and I think it would be good, only if you have to work equally hard to spot the satellite among nature’s satellites, the stars.
Seeing from that lens makes me question the viability of Starlink or any other similar plans. Space internet can be a good idea if SpaceX really finds a way to darken its satellites, cut down the failure rate, and bring down the cost by at least 60%. Until then, it is just another wild idea, riddled with ignorance.