What is Starlink? An overview of SpaceX’s satellite internet service

First announced in 2015, Starlink is a constellation of satellites by SpaceX intended to provide a high-speed and low-latency connection to the internet anywhere in the world. SpaceX hopes to bring the connection speed of Starlink up to 10 Gigabits per second.

Each Starlink customer is shipped a roughly pizza box-sized receiver. This receiver must have a clear field of view of the sky. SpaceX’s app makes it easy to ensure your Starlink receiver has a wide enough view. This receiver has motorized control over the angle but also makes use of phased array antennas.

A phased array antenna essentially allows the angle of the radio waves to be controlled electronically. This provides far more granular control of the angle of connection, allowing the ground-based receiver to track the many Starlink satellites as they move overhead.

Most current satellite internet networks are provided by satellites in an orbit at 35,786 km. This is known as geostationary orbit, as a satellite at that altitude traveling at about 3 km/s will be constantly above the same point on Earth. This is essential in order for one satellite to provide constant service to a specific area.

Starlink satellites on the other hand are in low earth orbit at an altitude of about 550 km. This means that an individual satellite would be unable to provide consistent coverage over any given area. Instead, Starlink relies on thousands of satellites moving overhead so that as some move out of range, more come into range.

Launch of SpaceX Starlink satellites. Photo: Jared Base

This means that the same number of satellites covering a population hub like New York will also be covering more rural areas at the same latitude. Many of these extremely rural areas are not large enough communities for a high-speed wired internet connection. So Starlink will provide a high-speed and low latency connection where access was previously has been unavailable.

https://spaceexplored.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2021/05/SpaceX_StarlinkL24_Deployment.mp4
Deployment of 60 Starlink Satellites. Credit: SpaceX

The FCC found that 19 million Americans lack access to a fixed broadband service that meets their basic threshold speeds. Being so much closer to the surface allows the smaller area that each Starlink satellite can service to have both lower latency and a higher speed.

Starlink is not just for Americans. Starlink Satellites will fly across the globe, over every country and ocean. It will take time, but Starlink will expand. Long term, Starlink could be used on ships and moving vehicles.

To see more information on specific launches, check out our Starlink Timeline.

Featured Image Credit: Glery Canas for Space Explored

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