Since 2019, we have been observing a very intriguing phenomenon in the sky, by some people called the space train. The company owned by Elon Musk, SpaceX, is responsible for this unusual sight. What are these unusual objects and what are they for?
Starlink satellites – what are they exactly?
These little glowing points, flying in an extremely even and compact array, are artificial satellites sent by humans into Earth’s orbit that make up the Starlink system. Starlink is a project initiated by SpaceX, an American company operating in the space sector. The company’s CEO (and founder) is Elon Musk, owner of (among others) Tesla and Neuralink, and one of the richest people in the world.
Placing artificial satellites in orbit around the world is nothing new – we have been using them for a long time for GPS navigation or watching satellite TV. The SpaceX project is also not unique in terms of the purpose of the satellites being sent to provide connection to the Internet. The most remarkable feature of the Starlink project is its sheer size – there has never been such a number of satellites sent by one company.
Why is SpaceX putting the Starlink satellite system in orbit?
The flight of the Falcon 9 rocket can launch 60 Starlink satellites into orbit at once. However, it is too little for the whole project to have a chance to work, which is why more flights are being carried out systematically. Ultimately, by 2027, SpaceX intends to place around 12,000 Starlink satellites in orbit around the Earth, the primary goal of which is to provide the Internet to the entire planet without the need for cables and networks. Since there are many hard-to-reach places on Earth, or where, due to a small profit, operators have not decided to provide their services, the satellite constellation (Starlink) constructed by SpaceX may turn out to be a godsend for their inhabitants.
The pioneering project assumes that every interested person will be able to obtain a special receiver offered by SpaceX and use the Internet, regardless of location. Initially, the speed will probably not be competitive, because the main goal of the creators is to cover the entire globe. Soon, however, Starlink will certainly take part in the race for the highest possible bandwidth and become a strong player in the telecommunications market.
Elon Musk’s satellites – detailed information
A single Starlink satellite has a relatively small mass, amounting to about 250 kg, which is why it is classified as small in the size classification of such objects. Each of them is equipped with a solar panel, thanks to which it is able to obtain renewable energy. It is thanks to these panels that they can be observed from the Earth – their surface reflects sunlight, which makes it look as if they are shining.
Unfortunately, the shipped satellite is not intended to serve too long, as their service life is assumed to be around 5 years. After this time, the satellite gradually lowers its flight to enter the Earth’s atmosphere at the right angle, thanks to which it will burn completely. This solution is to prevent the formation of a huge amount of space debris, which is very easy, since the system will be based on the simultaneous operation of about 12,000 devices. The satellites are equipped with a very advanced system that allows them to determine their position (based on star observation). Since in orbit it is impossible not to find objects that could effectively hinder the flight of Starlink (for example the aforementioned space debris) and, consequently, disrupt the formation, the satellites were equipped with a system that allows them to independently make decisions about their current course. Thanks to this, if an undesirable object appears on the route, the devices will decide one by one how to safely avoid it and then return to the formation.
Controversy surrounding the Starlink system
It turns out that the Starlink system, which, apart from the obvious commercial profit, also aims to improve the quality of life of people living in distant corners of the world (by providing them with the Internet), does not generally arouse as much admiration as it might seem at first glance . While being heavily involved in creating an efficiently functioning, very advanced system, there were some undesirable consequences that were not previously realized. Since satellites in their original form are very reflective of sunlight, they make it difficult for astronomers and astrophysicists to observe the sky at night.
Too high light intensity means that visibility is definitely limited. It is extremely annoying when using the largest astronomical telescopes, with very high sensitivity to light. Some argue that this will make it easy to overlook space-related objects and events that are very important to mankind. In response to such allegations, SpaceX said it was working on a solution to reduce reflected light as much as possible. However, the matter is more problematic than it sounds, because simply painting the surfaces of solar panels with black paint that comes first to mind could end up very badly for the satellites. Under such conditions, they would heat up very quickly and, consequently, damage. So, researchers developed a special type of shield that somewhat reduces reflection, and this is the technology that is currently used. SpaceX, however, does not end its work on solving this issue. They are constantly looking for a system that will reduce the reflection to almost zero.
This is not the only problem with the Starlink system. Scientists also point to another issue that the technology introduced by SpaceX may raise in the future, and in fact accelerate its progress. Namely, it is often said that Starlink contributes to the formation of more and more space debris, which may result in Kessler’s syndrome. This is a situation where a very high concentration of space debris will cause single collisions to lead to avalanche collisions, which will damage all objects placed in orbit, and their small remains (which will be difficult to avoid) may, for example, prevent the sending of new satellites or even making space travel. Such a scenario would have many very unpleasant consequences for humanity. Therefore, knowing the scale of the threat, scientists are constantly working on appropriate solutions that will save humanity from this, after all, catastrophic vision. One such solution, which is already combating the formation of space debris, is the previously mentioned burning of inactive Starlink satellites in the atmosphere. It only remains to say that there will be more and more similar solutions.
When will Starlink satellites be visible in the sky?
Until SpaceX finishes a system reducing the reflection of light from the surface of solar panels, the start of each mission gives you new opportunities to see this unusual phenomenon with your own eyes. Unfortunately, this is not always possible, as there are several key circumstances that have a direct impact on adequate visibility.
Nevertheless, it is worth following the previously announced Falcon 9 rocket launches, because using the right tools, you can determine the chances of satellite visibility in advance and plan their observation. You do not need to have specialized knowledge and equipment to admire this spectacle. The most popular, most convenient and, above all, free tool for observing the Starlink satellite route is the website www.heavens-above.com. It is a reliable database of all relevant information about celestial bodies and objects sent by humans into space. Thanks to it, you will learn about the current position of the stars, planets and the ISS. After entering the website, it is worth selecting your current location. Later, to find the current location of the Starlink satellites, in the “Satellites” section, select “All Starlink satellite passes” and select the specific mission. Then you will know when the Starlink satellites will fly over the geographic position you specify in the near future.
Latest information on satellites and the Falcon 9 rocket
SpaceX has announced that the 24th mission, which is already the tenth in the year 2021, sending another 60 satellites into orbit with Falcon 9, has been successfully completed. Since none of the missions have failed so far, it can be assumed that the plans to place all the satellites by 2027 have a good chance of success. And although the goal is still quite far, with the current state of about 1,400 satellites in operation, the speed of the Internet is higher than assumed at this stage. On the manufacturer’s website, we can read that the offered speed ranges from 50 Mb / s to 150 Mb / s. It may not be a result that may prompt you to pay a subscription, but it should be remembered that the technology is still being developed and over time its possibilities are to be much greater. Therefore, there is no shortage of people willing to install a satellite dish from Starlink.