Have you seen them? Trains of light seen in the night sky around the world have sparked a sense of wonder amongst many.
The source of these lights is Starlink satellites being launched in groups, and they travel in a line – a Starlink train - until they reach their operating altitude before separating. These satellites provide internet coverage across the globe, and in most remote locations that standard Wi-Fi does not typically reach.
SpaceX has performed 4 launches in the month of October, sending 87 satellites into orbit. The company’s next scheduled launch is slated to occur October 21, 2023.
In 2015, SpaceX, a company founded by Elon Musk, proposed Starlink as an initiative targeted to produce an internet connection through a mega constellation of satellites.
One of SpaceX’s goals is to eliminate dead zones, but this goal comes at no small price to the company. It will cost SpaceX $10 billion in order to see the Starlink satellite constellation fully realized, according to Reuters.
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission gave SpaceX permission to launch an astounding 12,000 satellites into orbit in 2018. How big is this mega constellation? The company launched its first 60 satellites into low-orbit in 2019, and as of 2023 that number has exploded to around 4,700.
And if 12,000 doesn’t already sound like a lot, SpaceX still looks to the stars for future expansion, hoping to launch 30,000 more satellites into space. The company submitted paperwork to the International Telecommunication Union to launch more Starlink satellites four years ago following the approval its received from the US Federal Communications Commission the year prior.
Residents in Florida have also noticed the explosive growth of Starlink, possibly more so than others, because most of the Starlink satellites are launched off the Florida coast from SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral Station. Currently, there is a SpaceX launch almost every four days.
Astronomers are concerned with the amount of traffic Starlink satellites can cause, some stating that they have the potential to be collision hazards. According to TechCrunch, SpaceX had to perform 25,000 evasive maneuvers with their satellites in order to prevent collisions.
That number of near misses is also expected to grow as more and more Starlink satellites are launched.
In 2022, SpaceX lost 40 satellites due to a geomagnetic storm. The company stated that “the escalation speed and severity of the storm caused atmospheric drag to increase up to 50% higher than during previous launches.”
Whether you’re in the local area of the launches or not, one of the most important questions about these Starlink satellites is, how long do they last and what happens after they expire? According to The Wall Street Journal, Starlink satellites are designed to have a five-year lifespan before they are no longer in service.
When Starlink satellites are no longer serviceable and begin to deorbit, they are destroyed as they re-enter our atmosphere. SpaceX stated that, “deorbiting satellites pose zero collision risk with other satellites and by design demise upon atmospheric reentry—meaning no orbital debris is created and no satellite parts hit the ground.”
Satellite internet and other satellite-based services have been proven to be a part of a competitive industry with companies like HughesNet, Viasat, OneWeb, Telesat. Elon Musk’s SpaceX clearly isn’t the only company building its own network of satellites, as Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, enters the industry with his own company Blue Origin.