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All you need to know about Starlink, Elon Musk’s satellite connection



All you need to know about Starlink, Elon Musk’s satellite connection

They look like an orderly row of lights suspended in the sky: bright, silent, in perfect synchrony. Someone compared them to planes, others to UFOs, but in reality they are Starlink satellites. If this name doesn’t tell you anything, let’s make another one that will surely turn on a light bulb: Elon Musk. In fact, Starlink is one of the numerous projects of the eccentric billionaire who has already given birth to Tesla and SpaceX. After giving a decisive impetus to the development of the electric car and revitalizing space travel, Musk has decided to create a constellation of satellites that guarantee access to broadband anywhere in the world.

Starlink is a division of SpaceX, the one that deals with the homonymous program.

The project was born in 2015 with the intent to bring broadband connection everywhere thanks to a network that, initially, should have included 12,000 satellites in orbit at 1,100-1,300 km of altitude. However, things did not go as planned and this forced SpaceX and the good Elon Musk to review their plans.

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But let’s go in order. As they initially said, the project was unveiled in early 2015. The following year a dedicated Starlink facility was built in Redmond, near Seattle. After three years of work, Musk’s company has put into orbit two prototypes, called Tintin A and Tintin B. An obligatory decision given that the project needed the approval and funds of the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission of the United States.

The result? Definitely satisfying given that Starlink was awarded an investment of 885.5 million dollars by the FCC.
Of course, SpaceX had to deal with competing companies and had to significantly reduce the number of satellites in orbit but today Starlink can count on 1600 satellites launched with the Falcon 9 Block 5 and positioned 550 kilometers from the surface.

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These huge objects that streak the sky are designed to bring the Internet connection everywhere, starting right from the most remote areas of the planet. However, they cannot remain stationary in a single point, they move continuously and this allows anyone to spot the famous lights we were talking about at the beginning. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be very lucky to see them. There is a site – findstarlink.com – which lets you know where Musk’s satellites are and when they will be visible in the sky of your city.

The American company is not the first company to offer satellite Internet. Viasat and HughesNet, for example, have been doing this for some time now, yet the functioning of Elon Musk’s project is different.
The reason? We mentioned it just above: Starlink’s satellites move, the others “don’t”.

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The functioning of the satellites

Viasat and HughesNet use satellites in geostationary orbit, that is, always located on the same region. The advantage is that they serve the same area constantly, the disadvantage is that they have to stay at an altitude of 36,000 km, which means an increase in latency of up to 600 ms. In short, the signal arrives very late and therefore allows surfing the net but makes it difficult to manage video calls or the use of online games.

Starlink instead it opted for a lower orbit so as to reduce the latency a about 30 ms. However, this does not allow individual satellites to cover the same area as they move very quickly instead of in perfect harmony with the rotational motion of the Earth. To compensate, SpaceX has had and will have to continue to launch satellites that can guarantee the service orbiting at high frequency and communicating with each other via laser.

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But how are these satellites made? They are equipped with thrusters that exploit the Hall effect, eject krypton to move and feed using two solar panels of 2 × 8 meters which are opened in orbit.

Each satellite, which weighs 227 kilogramsintegrates four flat base antennas that they transmit using the Ku band and the Ka band. All this allows to reach an effective speed of 610 Mbps which on the ground turn into about 150 Mpbs. The equivalent of an optical fiber.

Worried about a possible rain of falling satellites? Don’t panic – they’re designed to burn in the atmosphere before they hit the ground.

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What happens in my house?

Let’s suppose you want to activate the connection to Starlink. What do you actually need to do?

The service has been in beta since January in some areas of the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. From February, however, pre-orders are also open in Italy, which means that you can already ask for the kit.
The latter includes the antenna, a Wi-Fi router, power supply, cables and a tripod. The most complex part is the installation. Not so much for the assembly of the components, which is actually very simple, as for the positioning.
Don’t panic though: there is an application, available for both iOS and Android. The app uses augmented reality to help you figure out where to put the antenna so as to ensure the best possible connection. Once you have everything set up you should be able to count on a speed that goes from 50 to 150 Mbps.

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But this is only the beginning. Musk said that Starlink will not only focus on increasing the satellites, and therefore on the coverage of the service, but also on designing them to be able to double the connection speed by the end of 2021.

How much does Starlink cost?

Starlink’s pricing isn’t particularly popular. Let’s talk about € 99 per month to which you need to add € 499 for the kit and € 60 for shipping costs.

It is evident that it is not for everyone. In fact, few individuals will be able to afford these costs, while there could be several companies involved, both in countries otherwise devoid of any kind of connectivity and in more modern states where, however, the connection is not equally distributed. Just think of ours: outside the big Italian cities, 100 Mbps fiber is available to a small slice of the population.
That’s why Starlink looks set to be successful. The numbers recorded to date also testify to this: there is talk of 10,000 subscribers and over 500,000 pre-orders.

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Would you like to join the ranks of future customers too? Just go to the official website, enter the address and pre-order. The online tool will also give you an indicative period of activation of the service.

Satellite vs fiber optic

€ 99 – we have already said – are not few. Today a fiber connection costs an average of € 30-35. This means that with the same amount you cover three months of use instead of just one. So why this huge success? In part we have already anticipated it. Fiber requires excavation, work, investment and time. Of course, launching satellites into space is certainly not cheaper but once the network is created, which SpaceX has already done, the wait to use the service is much shorter. All the more so in remote places on the planetwhere it is not a question of “stretching the cables” but of creating the entire infrastructure from scratch.

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Someone might point the finger on speed. In the city we have 1 Gbps, Starlink reaches a maximum of 150 Mbps. This is also true, but where the alternative is 7 Mpbs or even a few kb, this is a really significant upgrade.

The only big problem remains the meteorological one. With the optical fiber the cables are buried and protected. It is very difficult for rain and snow to cause disruption, while it is not possible to say the same thing for satellites, satellites that have to deal with the wind as well. From January to today, however, Starlink’s problems have not been very many. According to downdetector.com the black days were 4/5, nothing more.

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Is it a bird? Is it a plane? It’s a Starlink satellite!

Starlink confronts us with another problem that does not concern connectivity or service costs but light pollution. The antennas in fact reflect a lot of light, which makes the satellites visible even to the naked eye.
For us it is a fascinating sight but in reality it obstructs the view of astronomers and enthusiasts. For this reason, in early 2020 Musk’s company began testing the “DarkSat”, a satellite with an anti-reflective coating; since last August the company has started to launch i “VisorSat”ie satellites with a special viewer that protects the antennas and reduces the light emitted.
Nothing changes for those already in orbit which will be replaced in a few years.

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Let’s not forget then the risk of collisions. The dizzying increase in orbiting objects brings with it an increase in danger and no, not only in theory since ESA had to intervene to avert the collision between one of its satellites and the constellation of Elon Musk. We cannot, however, blame Starlink in its entirety. The reality is simple: we weren’t ready for this eventuality and now we find ourselves with hundreds of satellites shooting over our heads with no rules to manage their traffic. However, we expect things to change, especially as the number of Starlink satellites is set to increase dramatically by 2025.

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Elon Musk’s satellite connectivity is expensive, weather-prone, stargazing, and not as fast as gigabit fiber, so what’s the point?
Starlink is destined to change the world. Do not stop at the comparison with optical fiber, ecological problems and some heavy snowfall. Musk’s project will take the Internet to unthinkable places. Try to put yourself in the shoes of researchers who are in some remote corner of the planet, of those who work in the middle of the ocean, of those who have companies and factories in less fortunate countries than ours. Think also of startups born outside the big cities, whether they are ours or those of other states. Starlink will bring a fast connection to all these places.

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It is not a perfect project, this is evident. The problem of light pollution will have to be solved, hardware costs will have to be lowered, the number of satellites will have to increase again and someone will have to put a stop to the uncontrolled launch of objects that orbit the Earth. But Starlink is still a great idea with enormous potential.

And no, just to dispel any doubts: Elon doesn’t do it out of kindness. Or at least not just for that. Its constellation will cost over $ 10 billion but Mr. Musk could earn $ 30 billion a year with Starlink. And then who knows, it could repeat the same thing on Mars and double the income.