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Why Is Elon Musk Launching 42,000 Satellites?

October 2021

Yep, that's Elon Musk's vision: launching 42,000 satellites. And you have to figure he knows what he's doing. After all, he's founded three billion-dollar companies: Tesla, SpaceX, and PayPal. His planned 42,000 Starlink satellites may be yet another success.

Hate to admit it, but I'm old enough to remember the launch of the very first satellite: Sputnik, which the Soviet Union sent skyward in 1957 to spy on us. By 2019 there were 2,000 active satellites orbiting Earth. And now, two years later, there are over 6,000.

Elon Musk's SpaceX began launching satellites in 2019 and by mid-August of this year had launched 1,740, greatly contributing to this growth. What's this guy got in mind?

He intends to make the internet available everywhere at all times. Currently, over a third of the world's population doesn't have internet access. Plus, there are remote areas where it's simply difficult to run internet cable or build a cell tower.

With Starlink, you'll have internet access whether you're flying over the ocean, on a ship, or traveling on a distant highway out of reach of cellphone towers.

Of course, for guys like me who experience serious withdrawal when the internet isn't close at hand, this is an urgent need.

Satellite internet has already been available, but the satellites are in higher orbit than Musk's. This causes "latency" issues. In other words, it's slow. Click on a link and expect to wait a bit before a web page loads.

The Starlink satellites, because of their large number, don't need to be so high. Why's that? For example, if there were one satellite serving all of the Midwest, it would need to be fairly high in order to be in contact with every location. But if there are 100 satellites, they can be lower, since each satellite doesn't need to be visible to the whole region. It only needs to be visible to a small specific area.

Hence, Musk's satellite internet will be much faster.

I was lucky enough last winter to witness the launch of 15 Starlink satellites. About 6:10 pm I looked up to see a string of bright objects marching across the night sky, headed toward the heavens.

Service is already available in select areas of the world, though it's initially pretty expensive: $500 for a 23-inch satellite dish and a router, and $99 per month for service. But SpaceX expects the costs to begin dropping dramatically later this year, as more satellites are deployed and more people sign up.

Other companies are scrambling to compete with SpaceX. OneWeb, based in the UK, plans to have an initial fleet of 648 satellites aloft by then end of 2022. And Amazon has received FCC authorization for a constellation of 3,236 satellites in low-Earth orbit.

It's astonishing how satellites have become such a part of our lives. GPS helps us navigate, weather satellites help us know the forecast, TV and radio satellites offer us news and entertainment, Earth observation satellites monitor rainforest degradation and other ecological changes, spy satellites help keep us safe. Approximately 60% of satellites are related to communication.

As a result of space-transport companies, such as SpaceX, and evolving technologies, satellites have become smaller and less expensive. The first Earth observation satellite launched by NASA in 1972 weighed about two tons. Today's "smallsats" are as light as 26 pounds and are about the size of a shoebox.

NASA's Space Shuttle, which was used to deploy satellites in the past, cost about $450 million to launch. Today a smallsat can be designed, fabricated, and launched for less than $1 million.

Satellite data is being used for an amazing range of purposes. A company called RS Metrics was able to date the first surge of the coronavirus by examining the number of cars in the parking lots of hospitals in Wuhan.

Investors are also interested in such data. RS Metrics tracks the number of cars in 65,000 parking lots of retail outlets such as Walmart, helping investors get a sense for quarterly results before they're announced.

A service perhaps more to my liking is offered by Planet, which has 150 satellites that monitor things such as CO2 super-emitters, floods, oil leaks, coral reef bleaching, and wildfire hazards.

Obvious questions arise: will having too many satellites cause collisions or interfere with astronomy? There are mechanisms that enable satellites to avoid collisions, and companies are increasingly using materials and techniques to cut down on reflection.

What about the proliferation of space trash? Elon Musk has thought about that: any non-functioning satellites will burn up on re-entry into the atmosphere. And Astroscale, a company headquartered in Japan, has designed spacecraft that will sweep up debris. In August a prototype showed it could successfully do so.

Hope it all works, so I don't ever have to worry about being without the internet.

© 2021 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen