Thousands, if not millions, of people, have become more aware of something happening in our global skies at the start of 2020, building far more awareness by April. That something is SpaceX and the Starlink satellite launches, but what do they do and are they a blessing or a blight?
Firstly, who is Elon Musk?
Many have heard of Elon Musk but may not know the origins of what catapulted him into the public eye.
Elon Musk is a quirky US billionaire who founded the company Space Exploration Technologies Corps, trading as SpaceX and is also CEO.
Musk was born in South Africa but has lived in the USA for most of his life. At just 12 years old, he sold the source code for his first video game for $500. At the age of 24, along with his brother, Kimbal, he founded a company called Zip2. This is likened to an ‘online Yellow Pages’ and they used $28,000 from their father to run it. After four years, the Musk brothers sold the company for a staggering $307 million.
He co-founded another company, using his share of that sale, called X.com in 1999, which we now know better as Paypal (after a merger). Musk made $180 million when eBay bought Paypal in 2002 for $1.5 billion. Following the sale of Paypal, Musk began the space-exploration company, SpaceX.
He started Tesla Motors in 2003 and went public in 2010. Just two years later, Musk was listed on the Forbes rich list with an estimated net worth of $2 billion.
Musk is not only looking outside of the earth but under it too. He has recently founded another company, called The Boring Company, that hopes to build underground infrastructure with electric transportation systems.
Musk has also signed the Giving Pledge , started by Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates, which means he vows to donate the majority of his wealth to philanthropy and charitable causes while he is alive. It is alleged he has already donated $10 million to AI (artificial intelligence) research.
What is SpaceX?
SpaceX was started in 2002 and, as their website states, manufactures and launches rockets and spacecraft. SpaceX has a vision that ultimately, by revolutionising technology, we will one day be able to live on other planets.
The Starlink mission is to launch 42,000 satellites within 3 layers of orbit to provide broadband access to the world via transceivers on the ground. SpaceX needs at least 400 satellites before even minimal coverage can be achieved, and 800 for moderate coverage.
One of the proposed steps by SpaceX was to recycle and reuse the rocket fairings and to date, they have recovered more than 50 boosters. This alone could save more than $6 million dollars per flight.
The ‘fairing’ is the nose part of the rocket that shields the craft against the pressure and heat when launching through the atmosphere. These fairings are fitted with parachutes and navigation systems to guide them to land in either the ocean or stretched nets of SpaceX’s recovery ships, Ms Chief (Mischief) and Ms Tree (Mystery).
Partnered with Nasa, SpaceX has also flown 20 supply missions to the International Space Station (ISS), all safely returned to Earth.
What is Starlink?
The SpaceX Starlink (trademarked in 2017) is a scheme whereby 42,000 mass-produced satellites will be launched into low earth orbit over ten years to significantly improve, and provide, broadband for everyone, no matter where you live. In theory, you will be able to get a broadband connection from the highest mountain to the middle of the sea. Because of this, it is said that Starlink will become the world’s chosen Internet Service Provider (ISP).
By April 22nd, 2020, SpaceX has sent up 422 satellites, with plans to launch 60 devices as often as every fortnight during 2020.
Being in low earth orbit, the signals don’t have to travel as far and can do so at reduced power. Being at this lower altitude also helps to reduce radio interference with other satellites and terrestrial wireless networks.
We can see the satellites best when it’s twilight or a little darker. This is due to there still being just enough sun to glint off the satellites which illuminates them well against the darkening sky and the light is reflected back down to us.
We can also see a number of the 9,000 already in orbit which are used for a mass variety of reasons, ranging from mapping and GPS to military use and climate change measures. The most infamous and by far the largest is the International Space Station which is the size of a football pitch and manned.
SpaceX estimates that they will have over half of the satellites in orbit within six years and the full constellation of satellites by nine years.
Why were we hearing more only in April 2020?
By April, media coverage of Starlink had heightened with many people curious about what the lines of moving lights were in the night sky.
Numerous amateur stargazers had begun to realise that something was happening, the likes of which we’d not seen before. At a time when we’re all in lockdown, with fantastic weather and clear skies, families were sitting outside in gardens and inevitably looking up towards the night sky.
Can I see them?
Yes! With the naked eye on a clear night, they are quite visible.
There are many dedicated astronomy sites that will inform you of the dates and times the Starlink will pass over your area. For the more discerning astronomer, telescopes and cameras will show some fabulous scenes.
As the satellites start to go higher in orbit, they will dim and become less obvious, but with at least one launch a month, you will get to see them regularly enough.
On a very basic level, the Starlink satellites have brought a wealth of interest in the skies. People are now also starting to ask about particular stars and constellations they can see with the naked eye, asking which telescope should they buy as a novice and which are the best books to begin to learn more; this can only be positive.
For developing countries and extremely rural areas, such as rigs, Antarctica etc, the Starlink satellites will bring broadband at a reasonable and competitive price. In these areas, communication companies find there is not enough market to fund laying the fibre optic cable required for so few people and at a large cost.
Musk hopes that any profit made will fund the manufacture of the next rocket named Starship. It is hoped that Starship, like Concorde in the past, will provide high-speed flights between major cities, such as London, Hong Kong and the US.
There is also speculation about mining from space, saving the Earth’s finite resources and thus saving more of our planet. Combine this with the colonisation of the Moon and Mars and there is hope for humanity to continue to thrive in the future but on a multi-planetary spectrum.
Meanwhile, Starlink’s broadband coverage may begin as soon as later this year, 2020, in Northern America and Canada.
Seasoned and professional stargazers have raised valid and acute concerns about the brightness of the satellites ruining the ability to see the sky beyond, further into space. SpaceX has taken measures to coat a prototype, Darksat, in a less reflective coating. Upon being viewed in orbit, it was said to be noticeably dimmer with estimations at around 55% less bright.
For larger telescopes, costing millions of dollars, this isn’t dim enough and the full 42,000 once launched could wreak havoc on deep space viewing and space studies. SpaceX has said they are aiming to design a ‘sunshade’ for the solar panels (which can’t be painted black), therefore hopefully minimising the reflection back to Earth. Another avenue to delve into is to change the angle of reflection on the solar panels.
Then there is the question of collisions in space with so many satellites in orbit. If two satellites crash, they can create a ‘debris field’ which in turn could cause hundreds more other crashes. This chain of circumstances could cost trillions of dollars in the long run. Most satellites, fortunately, are well tracked and can be moved out of harm’s way.
At the 70th International Astronautical Conference, held in Washington, it was even suggested we should attempt drawing up new laws for space.
What does the future hold for SpaceX and the Starlink system?
The future of SpaceX and the Starlink system is looking bright. (Not too bright we hope!) SpaceX, so far, takes most criticisms constructively and tries to redesign items to help cause less interference.
When SpaceX, and other private companies, partner with NASA or gain huge government contracts, Moon landings and beyond are quite realistic. Other planets may also have resources that we as humans can tap into and with many scientific mysteries yet to explore.
Who knows, could you be one of the first to visit Mars? Keep updated with Notty blogs for latest in technology.