SpaceX Starlink

Musk’s mega-constellation takes a step closer to completion

Photo from The Verge.

3 minute read — By Will Jones

This past month has seen major progress in Elon Musk’s ambitious Starlink project. The South-African business magnate founded SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corp) in 2002, but it has only risen to global prominence in recent years. Musk made his name as the founder and CEO of both Paypal and Tesla but has since moved his sights to the sky – in particular, Mars. SpaceX’s initial purpose was to reduce the cost of transportation to the red planet, with the aim of an eventual colonisation. 

Since then, Musk’s ambitions have become more focused on the Starlink project. After becoming the first private firm to reach orbit in 2008, and the first private firm to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station in 2012, SpaceX centralised their concentration on the reusability of spacecraft.  

In December 2015, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 accomplished the first vertical take-off and propulsive vertical landing. Starlink builds off of this reusability element, aiming to launch thousands of mini-satellites into low-earth orbit to create a mega-constellation. This mega-constellation of satellites will then be able to provide internet access in every corner of the globe. It is estimated that the project will cost $10 billion.

The first two prototype test-flight satellites were launched in February 2018. 15 months later and SpaceX had carried out their first major deployment, launching 60 satellites into orbit. 

However, it wasn’t until September 2020 that the aerospace company began to make major inroads into the project, launching 60 satellites at a time on multiple occasions. As of the 25th September, Musk’s SpaceX has launched 775 Starlink orbiters via the reusable Falcon 9 rocket. The mega-constellation has frequently been visible in the night sky as it circles the Earth – capturing the interests of seasoned astronomers and the general public alike. 

Despite the first large-scale release of satellites taking place in this past month, the project is far from completion. 12,000 Starlink satellites have already been approved by US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) but they have since submitted filings to the International Telecommunication Union to arrange the possible launching of a further 30,000. It’s a good job that SpaceX are capable of building 120 satellites a month because the mega-constellation could be getting a whole lot more mega.

And thus, a new worry has arisen surrounding space debris. 42,000 mini satellites orbiting at 600 kilometres above Earth could pose some dangers. Moreover, it could obscure astronomical studies of the Earth itself. Since the latter concerns were raised, SpaceX has coated new satellites with an anti-reflective surface in the hope that it doesn’t hamper observational investigations.

Whilst the Starlink programme doesn’t deliver the excitement of the famous 1960s or 1970s space missions, it is perhaps the most beneficial aerospace project to be devised in recent history. It has the potential to transform millions of lives when near-global service is achieved by late 2021.