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Everything we know about SpaceX's Starlink network

When it comes to SpaceX, or more precisely its slightly eccentric founder and CEO Elon Musk, it may be difficult to separate facts from fictions. So many incredible achievements SpaceX had, so many projects or ideas are tacitly postponed or suspended as soon as it becomes clear that the technical challenges are greater than expected. There is also Elon's special sense of humor to deal with. Most people assumed that the first payload of Falcon Heavy would be his personal Tesla Roadster. This was a joke until he tweeted the first shots that were built into the rocket fairing.

When Elon first mentioned Starlink several years ago, SpaceX's plan to provide worldwide high-speed Internet access via a mega-constellation of up to 12,000 individual satellites, it is not surprising that many are skeptical about the claims with a healthy dose have met. The profitability of Starlink was inextricably linked to SpaceX's ability to significantly reduce the cost of reusable launcher orbit. The company had not yet proven this ability successfully. It seemed like a classic cart before the horse scenario.

Today, however, SpaceX has not only begun to reuse the latest version of its Falcon 9 rocket on a regular basis, but Starlink satellites will soon orbit the Earth. These are early prototypes that are not as powerful as the final production versions, and with only 60 on the first launch, it's still a long way from thousands of satellites that would be required for the system to reach operational status. No question, they're real ,

During a media call on May 15, Elon Musk dropped out more technical information about the Starlink satellites than ever before and gave us the first exact details of the satellites themselves, what the company's goals are, and even a rough idea of ​​it when the network could be operational.

Launch of the First Generation

Elon repeated several times that these satellites will be the first of at least three generations of satellites that will eventually form the network Starlink network. They are closer to the final satellite than the 2018 launched technology demonstrators Tintin A and Tintin B but they still lack important features needed for optimal performance.

The first 1,600 Starlink satellites were reported to the FCC.

The biggest failure of these early satellites is the lack of laser communication links between vehicles, which means that every satellite has to transmit everything via ground stations. In other words, if a Starlink satellite wants to send data to one of its colleagues, it must send it to a ground station, which then forwards the information over the terrestrial Internet to another ground station that is within range of the recipient. This not only increases latency, but requires a large number of ground stations around the world.

To solve this problem, Elon says later versions of the Starlink satellites will use laser communication to make interconnected connections and set up a mesh network. Data does not always have to be sent to earth and back, but instead can be forwarded through the satellite network. Of course, ground stations still need to transfer data to and from the Internet itself, but far fewer are needed and their geographic location will be less critical. This technology, which enables global communication with little or no ground infrastructure, could also be applied to satellite constellations orbiting the Moon or Mars. Almost certainly SpaceX thinks about it in the long term.

In addition, Elon reiterated that these first 60 satellites did not have the "Design for Demise" optimizations implemented after the Federal Communications Commission voiced concerns about SpaceX's inability to ensure backlogs originated in Starlink satellites, can safely be held back over the ocean. In its response to the FCC, SpaceX promised that future versions of the satellites would be designed to burn completely upon re-entry, eliminating any risk of falling debris endangering human life or property.

Experimental Technology [19659006] These first-generation Starlink satellites may lack some important features, but they are not wildcards either. While we have to wait awhile to see laser communications or a fully degradable design, they definitely have some unique capabilities that will likely attract the attention of other aerospace players if they prove successful.

According to Elon, these satellites are the first vehicles to ever use krypton ion propulsion in space. This type of propulsion system was tested by NASA in the early 1990s, but never reached operational status, as it turned out to be less efficient than similar xenon-powered engines. Even so, krypton is cheaper than xenon, and for low-cost satellites, where only occasional orbit adjustments are expected during their relatively short life, the use of a lower efficiency propellant is actually more economical.

Orbit Adaptations These satellites will also test an autonomous obstacle avoidance system, which will certainly be of interest in view of the ever-increasing concern about space debris in orbit. The satellites receive orbital data from a NORAD database and use this information to decide for themselves whether to perform evasive maneuvers. Traditionally, such decisions are made by ground controllers, but with tens of thousands of satellites in the final Starlink network, SpaceX felt that this was a task that could benefit from automation.

Shipping and Handling

The technical aspects of the satellites themselves are interesting, but perhaps the biggest question that most people have about Starlink was how SpaceX plans to ship 12,000 satellites into orbit over the next few years. Since the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, humanity has brought less than 9,000 objects into orbit around the Earth. In this light, one could argue that a satellite constellation with the size proposed by Starlink would represent a new milestone in human space use.

The reusability of the Falcon 9 was a big piece of the puzzle, but it would still not be economically feasible if SpaceX could not maximize the number of satellites that could rise with each launch. To this end, they developed a novel "flat-pack" design for the Starlink satellites. Within the payload fairing, the satellites are housed in an arrangement resembling a server rack, and when deployed, fold their solar arrays and antennas into operational position. Elon admitted that there was a chance that some of them would jump on the way, but said there would be no serious problems given the low relative speed.

With 60 satellites weighing 227 kilograms At this first Starlink launch, scales weighing 18.5 tons each and the weight of additional hardware such as the rack itself will tip the scales. The largest mass a Falcon has ever put into orbit. Nevertheless, Elon said it would cost SpaceX more to launch the Starlink satellites than to build them.

How do you sign up?

Unfortunately, we have not learned much When and how can consumers actually sign up for the Starlink Internet service? Elon guessed that at best it would take six more launches before the network could even be activated, and twelve to ensure sufficient coverage for it to be used. SpaceX will then look for business partners to actually start selling Internet services and selling their phased array terminals, probably initially for rural customers. At least for now, SpaceX seems more likely to work with traditional ISPs than to go to war with them. This will likely be a disappointment for those who were hoping Elon would shake up the telecommunications industry.

Satellite renderings of Mark Handley's excellent video on Starlink.

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