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A look at SpaceX's Starlink satellite internet initiative


All the constellation, none of the astrology

Access to the internet is essentially a requirement for all gerbils. Most of us here on TR get our home internet delivered via a wired connection. Usually, that means copper in the form of cable or DSL. Others are fortunate enough to have the option of fiber. For those not using a wire, some may choose to use a cellular connection, while a small percentage might take advantage of fixed wireless to exchange bits. Each option comes with their own plusses and minuses both technical and economic. Very few, however, would make the choice of going with a satellite-based ISP—unless that is their only option. SpaceX is looking to change that with Starlink, and it all starts now.

A brief history of SpaceX​​​​

SpaceX's rocket launches and the clients that pay for them have created a financially stable and sustainable business. SpaceX has successfully launched 17 missions that supplied cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), including the first demonstration mission of the new Dragon2 capsule. This capsule is expected to launch humans to the ISS within a year. The company has also launched dozens of communication satellites for private businesses, along with multiple US government satellites. That's all well and good, but SpaceX's long-term goal is to take the next steps of reaching out into (and beyond) the solar system to send payloads, scientific or human, to other planets—most immediately, Mars. Admittedly, this is a pretty ambitious goal, but this way-out-there thinking is what's driven the company to do things others thought impossible, or never seriously considered.


The second Falcon Heavy flight. Source: Me!

The company has pioneered various space-tricks, many of which revolve around the re-use of components. Starting with the 11th ISS cargo mission, SpaceX started re-using the Dragon capsule instead of building new ones each time. In 2015, SpaceX pulled a card from sci-fi novels and accomplished what most considered to be impossible by landing the first stage of their rocket on a landing pad. In 2016, SpaceX upped the game again by landing in the middle (figuratively speaking) of the ocean onboard a large floating barge. In 2018, during the Falcon Heavy test flight, it accomplished another milestone by successfully landing two first-stages on land. Earlier this year, on the second Falcon Heavy flight, SpaceX was able to successfully land all three first-stages, two by land and one by sea.

The goal of component re-use is primarily to bring down the cost of space travel. For reference, the cost of a Space Shuttle launch was about $1 billion each trip. Granted, the Shuttle could deliver about 28 metric tons to low-earth orbit (LEO) while the standard Falcon 9 can only do 23 tons, but SpaceX's own website lists the price of a basic Falcon 9 launch at just $62 million. Access to LEO is good, and being able to lob huge satellites toward a Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) is great too. Going to Mars is a whole other ballgame, though.

Back in 1969-1972, the mighty Saturn V powered the historic Apollo missions to the moon. The combined mass of the CSM & LEM was around 30,000kg. SpaceX's largest currently operational rocket, the Falcon Heavy, can only launch about 17,000kg to Mars. Of course, the trip to the Moon only took about three days. The duration of a trip to Mars varies depending on the orbital distance between the planets and how much fuel is available, but it would be something more like nine months. Today, no rocket exists that can lift enough mass to make a manned Mars mission feasible.

However, SpaceX has a plan. It's called Starship—formerly known as BFR, MCT, and ITS. Starship will be powered by 38 Raptor engines and is expected to offer almost twice the thrust of the Saturn V. SpaceX also intends to refuel the rocket in orbit. That will purportedly allow it to carry around 100,000kg to Mars.

All of that is some pretty ambitious technology, but research and development isn't cheap. There's no government footing the bill to get human butts to Mars. That means Elon Musk and SpaceX must find another avenue to pay for the development of this plan, and that avenue is Starlink.