Starlink, Mega Constellations, and the New Race to Space

There’s an all new race to reach space — but it’s not for what you might think.


NASA / Unsplash

Up to 40 of the 49 satellites launched into orbit were lost due to a geomagnetic storm. These storms are triggered by disturbances between Earth’s magnetic field and solar wind. Even with SpaceX attempting to fly the satellites edge on, in what they call “safe mode”  to minimize drag and to maximize protection against the storm, they still could not reach their orbital position. 

Depending on who your internet provider is, you may or may not have heard of Starlink. Or, it’s more likely that who your internet provider isn’t would be the reason you’ve heard of them. Since May 2019, Starlink by SpaceX has been striving to provide rural communities with high-speed internet by the use of a low-ceiling webbing of satellites spread across the globe. As of January 2022, over 2,000 satellites have been launched with current authorization from the FCC allowing them to launch twice their initial amount. With this progression, Starlink is steadily moving forward with its goal to place around 42,000 satellites in the sky. 

Starlink’s goal is to provide fast and reliable internet service to rural communities that might not have access to providers that would typically serve more urban populations. Over 20 percent of Americans living in rural areas don’t have access to a broadband connection. A customer of Starlink, Corey Gordon, who lives in Alberta, Canada, said that working from home and video streaming during the pandemic is “next to impossible” with his current internet. Countries like Sri Lanka, Cuba, and Ethiopia all have internet penetration rates ranging from 35% to 5%, and Starlink’s predicted expansion could help bring equal opportunities to rural communities. 

As a result, Starlink will be competing with other internet providers such as AT&T, Spectrum, and Viasat for customers. These companies, although having been in the market for longer than Starlink, are not the most suitable for high usage, streaming, or fast uploading. This is where Starlink’s main advantage over the competition shines through. 

But at what cost?

For starters, Starlink offers no data caps and doesn’t offer minimum length contracts. The average cost for internet service is $60 a month on average, and many top-rated providers cost even less than that. Starlink is more expensive, costing $99 a month, with an additional $99 for the initial deposit and $500 for the base cost for the hardware. 

Starlink has also rolled out an additional service called Starlink Premium, which is expected to start shipping orders in the second quarter of 2022. If it wasn’t made clear by the name already, price is even less of a consideration now. At an eye-watering five hundred dollars a month, you can get double the performance for quintuple the price. That’s not counting the $2000 dollar price tag for the hardware alone, and $500 for the deposit, which makes the base plan’s fees look quite small in comparison. The justification for this pricing increase is that the service is supposed to work better in extreme weather conditions, as well as give customers tech support around the clock. But durability and reliability shouldn’t have to come at a premium, surely?

But as one Starlink user would find out, hot Arizona sun and Starlink dish’s ‘thermal shutdown’ do not mix well together. As it turns out, Dishy McFlatface, aptly named so by Elon Musk, cannot operate at temperatures above 104° or below -22°. Starlink user Martin living in the town of Topock saw temperatures climb above 120°. Not long after, Martin’s internet went dark, where he lost service for over seven hours. 

Connection and hardware aside, tech support, or the lack thereof, has already shown to be a concern. It’s also another basic feature that should be included in every business, but Starlink seems to be missing it. There is no contact information for Starlink, via e-mail or phone, for business or inquiry. In late January 2022, Business Insider interviewed over 10 people who have since paid their deposit for Starlink for over a year now and have yet to hear word from Starlink about their order. In one case, a man refunded his deposit because of the lack of communication but says he never received the money back, and could not reach SpaceX to resolve the issue. 

That’s not to say that Starlink hasn’t been working on shuttling satellites into the sky for most of their other customers. But in February of this year, Starlink lost nearly an entire launch’s worth of satellites due to a geomagnetic storm, caused by solar winds interacting with Earth’s magnetic field. Geomagnetic storms are rated in increasing severity on a scale from G1 to G5. February’s storm was rated at a G1 to G2. “As for how often these storms occur,” said Robert Garner from Nasa Goddard Space Flight Center, “the Sun experiences an 11-year cycle, going from solar minimum to maximum. Our most recent solar minimum was December 2019, so we can generally expect an increase in the Sun’s activity over the next several years.”

Up to 40 of the 49 satellites launched into orbit were lost due to the storm. Even with SpaceX attempting to fly the satellites edge-on in what they call “safe mode” to minimize drag and to maximize protection against the storm, they still could not reach their orbital position. Two satellites were seen disintegrating over Puerto Rico. 

Starlink is not the only company looking to secure a spot in the sky. In the fourth quarter of this year, Amazon hopes to launch two prototype satellites from Project Kuiper to compete with SpaceX and other companies in the same market. Their goal is the same as that of Starlink — to provide reliable internet to people without it. Twelve launch reservations to put their satellites into space have already been made with Blue Origin, the Bezos-owned commercial aerospace manufacturer, which is also partnering with NASA’s Artemis Program. By FCC regulations, Amazon must launch at least half of its total satellite count by 2026, which Amazon says it is on track to do so. 

But although promising, Kuiper System’s timing has left questions as to whether or not competition with Starlink will even be a concern. Kuiper was originally announced in April of 2019, putting it four years behind that of Starlink’s debut. They’ve only just secured means of launching their satellites into space, while Starlink has nearly 1,500 satellites already orbiting the Earth. In addition, Kuiper’s earliest predicted launch dates are scheduled into 2023. On top of that, cost-effectiveness may also become a concern. Kuiper’s satellites weigh in at over twice that of Starlink’s own, meaning a higher launch cost, and consequently, could mean a higher cost that consumers would have to pay. 

It’s a new race to space, with SpaceX and Amazon at the forefront. And although the prospect of global communication is inspiring, the ramifications of such a bold step forward should also be considered. Out of the 7,500 satellites currently in low Earth orbit (LEO), 36% of those were launched in the last two years alone. With this increase of satellites, we can also expect to see an increase in space debris. Although it doesn’t pose a threat to us on Earth, it does threaten the presence of orbiting satellites and spacecrafts like the ISS. The Kessler Syndrome originally summarized how existing masses of space debris could hinder humanity’s efforts to travel beyond Earth, but its current vision involves collisions with said satellites and spacecrafts, causing even more debris to fall into orbit. In 2003, there were 10,000 catalogued pieces of debris in Earth’s orbit. Now, almost twenty years later, that number has tripled. With the rise of competition in this new found market, we can only expect to see more growth in the coming years. 

Starlink sees enough of its own close calls with other spacecrafts at 500 times a week, and 26,000 times a year. Hugh Lewis, head of the Astronautics Research Group at the University of Southampton in the U.K. estimates that when Starlink’s mega constellation has been fully set into motion, Starlink alone will be responsible for 90% of all close calls in orbit

“At this point, and for the foreseeable future, avoidance is our best recourse,” Lewis said. “People who say, ‘I’m going to take the risk’, in my humble opinion, that’s an irresponsible thing to do.”

Since May 2019, Starlink by SpaceX has been striving to provide rural communities with high-speed internet by the use of a low-ceiling webbing of satellites spread across the globe.