SpaceX′s Starlink satellites: 7 questions for Elon Musk | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 16.05.2019
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Global broadband from space

SpaceX's Starlink satellites: 7 questions for Elon Musk

Starlink is the epitome of a megaconstellation: It aims to provide global internet with a constellation of 12,000 satellites. Its nearest competitor, OneWeb, aims to launch just 600. But what does any of it mean?

SpaceX and its celebrity-leader, Elon Musk, have a reputation for being fast and first in all manner of technologies — from digital payments to cars, rockets, hyperloops, energy grids, missions to Mars, and now the internet itself. 

When it comes to space-based global broadband, however, SpaceX is in second position. The company is kickstarting its Starlink project with 60 satellites. 

OneWeb, another US-based communications company beat SpaceX to it — albeit with just a tenth of the satellites.  

Read more: OneWeb of 600 internet satellites in space

OneWeb is in cahoots with a European aerospace firm, Airbus. Together, they launched their first six space-based internet satellites in February.  

Their goal is to create a web of 600 satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO) — that's anywhere up to 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) from the ground, but close enough to ensure communication between space and Earth is swift.

In February 2018, SpaceX launched two Starlink tester satellites. Musk said his megaweb of broadband would serve those people who were "least served."

But both Starlink and OneWeb are not alone — such is the philosophy of "progress über alles," especially when there is money to be made.

Sad face.

So we've got some questions for Musk, his competitors and any other interested parties, which would be all of us, surely, wouldn't it?

First, is there enough space in space for all those satellites?

At last count, there were about 5,000 satellites in LEO. A third of them are dead, inactive, junk. Trash that's been left for another day. A bit like plastic in Earth's own oceans. 

And we still have no clear strategy for dealing with this space debris. There are international guidelines and requirements for new launches. But experts admit those guidelines are hard to enforce.

 

Watch video 02:07

First six OneWeb satellites launched

The problem is, space debris is not only unsustainable junk, but it's also potentially dangerous. The slightest collision between obsolete satellites could knock out our much-prized social media and streaming feeds.

Read more: 3 ways you could die while riding a hyperloop

Another sad face.

So, what's the plan? Who's going to pay for it? And who's going to do it?   

What about general congestion in LEO?

Some scientists can be cavalier about the question of satellite congestion. They say our roads are congested but the traffic still moves, so why wouldn't it work in space?

Fair point? Not quite.

When cars break down or have accidents on roads, we remove them and clear up the mess. In space, we don't.

 

Even if companies were to successfully self-regulate and adhere to the guidelines on mitigating space debris, they would have around 20 years after the end of a satellite's mission to remove any debris from orbit (if it hasn't de-orbited automatically by design).  

And a lot of dead satellites, the very old ones, are just that — dead. We have no way of powering them to move them out of the way, or even to reprogram them.

A hyperloop tunnels with a Tesla car in it (picture-alliance/AP Images/R. Beck)

He can't be serious!? From e-cars to hyperloops, SpaceX's Elon Musk has big plans.

So, what's the plan?

Is cybersecurity in space-based communications networks an issue?

Yes, cybersecurity is an issue in space. Some dispute the power of our technology to disrupt satellite communications and whether a "rogue nation" or gang could jam, hack or corrupt the flow of information, global positioning systems, or financial transactions.

But it's done on Earth, so why not in space? Why else would countries be so eager to establish rivals to America's GPS? Think Europe's Galileo.

No doubt we'll find out the first time space internet is hacked. 

Will these megaconstellations become part of an interplanetary internet?

That's an easy one. The answer is a definite YES.   

Read more: China lands Chang'e-4 probe on 'dark' side of moon

Who will profit most?

The mantra is that space-based global broadband will get the whole terrestrial world connected.

Whether it's SpaceX, OneWeb, Amazon's Project Kuiper (another 3,000 satellites), Project Loon, a balloon-based network from Google's parent company Alphabet, or "Facebook Connectivity" masts, they want everyone — from the Philippines to lost Amazon tribes — online.

Amazon, internet retailer, logo (Reuters/P. Rossignol)

From Amazon Kuiper... (they're hiring...)

Brazil Amazon rainforest, man on a boat (Getty Images/AFP/Evaristo Sa)

... to the Amazon rainforest. And internet for all?

You could be forgiven for thinking we're dealing with charities.

Quite often we hear about mobile communications helping emergency services. That is true.

Read more: #Modi2Moon: What's up with India's space ambitions?

But there are far fewer natural catastrophes than there are daily transactions. So the more people online, the more people to sell stuff to.  

Chances are, Chinese companies, like Alibaba and Tencent, will launch their versions soon as well. 

And then it'll be mere moments before India gets in on the action.

There may even be a power-grab at play, an attempt to wrench control from governments. It's an open secret that technologists find the slow pace of government agencies like NASA frustrating. And they do want control. 

Perhaps that's paranoia. But if we don't ask now, we'll just have to like it when we find out.  

Read more: A question about race in space

What do these megaconstellations mean for people living in countries that restrict free access to information? 

We're thinking religious and political dictatorships, countries at war, those that ban freedom of expression, limit the rights of woman and / or ethnic minorities.

We're also thinking places like China, which are part-Communist and part-Capitalist ,and surveillance-happy. Will people in remote Uighur regions get equal access to space-based internet, regardless of the provider? Or will they be forced to use China's own?

Will American and European companies collude with China's authorities in exchange for a slice of the local market?

Is this the start of yet another kind of space race?

We're already seeing a race to commercialize space, with prospectors busy scoping for rare minerals on planets, moons and asteroids. 

Read more: 'You could send Congress to space,' says Ted Cruz but, alas, Donald Trump declines

We're also seeing a race to militarize space — despite provisions in the near-ancient 1967 Outer Space Treaty that prohibit any one nation laying claim to any part of space.

 

Watch video 01:13

Who is Elon Musk?

That treaty, composed during the Cold War, held all of two years until the US landed on the moon in 1969. 

Then, just this year, China trumped Trump. It became the first country to land on the dark side of the moon, and effectively laid claim to that.

This being the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, China's Chang'e-4 mission was as significant as they come.

Back to Starlink: It was reported in October 2018 that Musk allegedly fired engineers when they disagreed about the speed of Starlink's launch schedule. He wanted the first satellites to launch, it was said, no later than June 2019. Next month.  

So, the answer is yes, this is probably the beginning of another space race. But how do we stop it getting out of control? After all, in love and war, information is everything. And those who control the flow, they have it all. 

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