Since SpaceX launched its Starlink service in a “better than nothing Beta” in late 2020, it has been connecting people around the globe who may have previously had limited access to high-speed internet. Now, the satellite service is connecting people on all seven continents, as an Antarctica research station just deployed a user terminal.
SpaceX’s internet service makes use of thousands of Starlink satellites in low-Earth orbit in order to connect with user terminals on the ground. The satellites can provide connectivity even in extremely rural areas or out at sea. For those long distances from urban areas, Starlink can be one of few options – and often the only option – capable of providing high-speed, low latency internet.
Starlink service is available in 40 countries around the world, and now the service is serving all seven continents.
Starlink works by connecting to a user’s Starlink terminal on the ground and a ground station that’s connected to the wider internet. When the satellites aren’t within range of both a ground station and the user terminal, as is the case in Antarctica, they must rely on the satellites’ laser connections. These laser connections are high-speed connections between the satellites that allow the signal to hop between satellites and then down to a ground station.
Additionally, most Starlink satellites don’t reach latitudes as high as the poles. The connection at these extreme ends of the Earth is provided by the Starlink satellites launched into a polar orbit. With the satellites hoping the signal to the nearest ground station, this new connection will increase the bandwidth available to the scientists living and working at a station where the average temperature is -18 Celsius.
Scientists working there are in fields ranging from aeronomy and climate science to geology and astrophysics. According to the United States Antarctic Program website, the previous 24/7 internet link at McMurdo station in Antarctica was just 17 Mbps. The expected speeds listed by SpaceX for a high performance terminal range from 100-350 Mbps down and 10-40 Mbps up. Going through laser link connections would add some latency and potentially slow it down, and the limited number of Polar Starlink satellites could cause interruptions, but even so, that could be dramatically faster than was previously possible.
Things like email and social media are permitted on the station’s network, but streaming services are entirely blocked, and video calls are only permitted on a limited basis. While this extra bandwidth will, no-doubt, be used to facilitate the scientific work taking place down there, perhaps some having some extra bandwidth might allow them to catch up on an episode of Star Trek: Lower Decks or even stream a movie one-in-awhile – if those rules change. After all, “Dynamically allocating bandwidth to personal and morale use occurs when it becomes available,” and they potentially just got a lot more bandwidth to play with.