Billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX company has been launching thousands of satellites into Earth orbit, to the point where many people report being able to spot them in the skies.
The satellites are part of the Starlink project, which aims to provide high-speed internet services from space in remote areas of the Earth.
What is Starlink and how does it work?
Through a massive network of satellites, the Starlink project provides services to people who live in remote areas and who do not have access to high-speed internet.
Lucinda King, manager of space projects at the University of Portsmouth in England, says there are people in this situation all over the world, especially in Africa.
Starlink satellites were placed in low earth orbit to allow faster connection speeds to the ground.
Starlink operates in low orbit — Photo: BBC
However, many satellites are needed to provide full coverage of the globe.
Starlink is believed to have put about 3,000 satellites into space since 2018. That number could be as high as 10,000 or 12,000, says Chris Hall, director of technology website Pocket Link.
“The use of satellites solves the problem of getting internet connections in remote locations in deserts and mountains,” he says.
“This is achieved without having to build large amounts of infrastructure, such as cables and poles, to reach these areas.”
How much does Starlink cost and who will use the service?
Compared to standard internet providers, Starlink is not cheap.
He charges customers US$99 per month (over R$500). The antenna and router needed to connect to the satellites cost US$ 549 (more than R$ 2,800).
Experts say Starlink’s main market is developing countries, as in places like the United States and Europe more than 90% of homes already have high-speed internet.
“Most of the developed world is already well connected,” says Professor Sa’id Mosteshar, director of the Institute for Space Policy and Law at the University of London, England. “They’re counting on a small slice of the market for revenue.”
SpaceX claims to have 400,000 subscribers, including families and companies in the 36 countries it covers — mainly in North America, Europe and Oceania and Asia.
In the coming year, Starlink plans to further extend its coverage in Africa, South America and Asia — regions of the world where Internet coverage is poorest.
“Starlink prices can be too high for a lot of families in Africa, say,” says Chris Hall. “But it can play an important role in connecting schools and hospitals in remote areas.”
How is Starlink helping in Ukraine?
Russian forces operating in Ukraine shut down the country’s internet services and tried to block social media sites.
Elon Musk made Starlink available in Ukraine immediately after the invasion began. About 15,000 Starlink antenna and router kits were shipped to the country.
“Starlink kept a lot of things in the air, like utilities and government,” says Chris Hall. “The Russians haven’t found a way to disable it.”
The service was also used on the battlefield.
“Ukrainian forces are using Starlink for communication, for example, between headquarters and troops in the field,” says Marina Miron, a defense studies researcher at King’s College London.
“Its signals cannot be blocked like regular radio signals, and it only takes 15 minutes to set up the kit.”
Is Starlink crowding orbit with satellites?
In addition to Starlink, rivals such as OneWeb and Viasat — which also provide satellite internet services — are putting thousands of them into low-Earth orbit.
But that will cause problems, says Sa’id Mosteshar.
“This makes space less and less safe in terms of collisions,” he says. “Satellites can hit other vehicles and create debris fragments and these, in turn, can do much more damage when flying at high speeds.”
Recently, there have been a series of near misses involving Starlink satellites, including with China’s space station.
“If there are too many fragments, it could make low-Earth orbit unusable in the future,” says Lucinda King of the University of Portsmouth.
“And we may not be able to move from low Earth orbit to higher orbits where our navigation and telecommunications satellites are located.”
Starlink satellites often appear in photographs as rays of light — Photo: Mariana Suarez/AFP
Starlink satellites are also creating problems for astronomers.
During sunrise and sunset, they can be seen with the naked eye because the sun shines on their wings.
This can cause problems for telescopes, obscuring the view of stars and planets.
“Astronomers soon realized this problem,” says Mosteshar. “They were the first to complain.”