by Stephen Cooley
SpaceX, the private aerospace firm most known for its ability to land its rockets vertically, completed another successful launch on January 6th. The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off at 9:19 pm and carried the third set of 60 satellites in a program known as Starlink, a venture funded by SpaceX founder Elon Musk, that aims to bring “high-speed broadband internet to locations where access has been unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable,” according to its website.
There are now 182 Starlink satellites in orbit which make SpaceX already the owner of the largest satellite ‘constellation,’ despite the company being far short of the 12,000 satellites already approved by the Federal Communications Commission and the 42,000 that Musk plans to have in orbit.
The satellites work by using radio dishes to communicate with each other, which then sends the data between one another using precisely aimed lasers. Using this method, Starlink hopes to achieve internet speed in excess of 1Gb/s and latency between 25 and 35 ms, which puts the service roughly on par with land-based internet connections.
However, the project has faced intense backlash from the astronomy community. Many are worried that the dramatic increase in the number of satellites will make it much harder for ground-based telescopes to get a clear view of the night sky. Astronomers currently have to be careful with the timing of when they use their telescopes as the roughly 5,000 total satellites currently in orbit create a long ‘streak’ if they pass by the telescope when it is in use. The reflective surfaces of any satellite can ruin an entire image or data set, and Musk’s plan to put 30,000 satellites in orbit would mean that the “night sky would never be the same,” according to Dr. James Lowenthal, an astronomer at Smith College, in a statement to the New York Times. Lowenthal is part of a committee put together by the American Astronomical Society to discuss the effects of Starlink on astronomy. The work of this group has found that with the additional 30,000 satellites, ground-based telescopes would not be able to avoid the bright streaks caused by Starlink up to one-fifth of the time. According to Lowenthal, “it tremendously complicates [astronomers’] job” and “potentially threatens the science of astronomy itself.”
Despite the alarms raised by the astronomy community, Musk blazes ahead with his plan to connect the world with his satellites, one rocket launch at a time.