It’ll require a few more years—and thousands of more satellites—before SpaceX’s Starlink internet constellation achieves full functionality, but that didn’t stop Elon Musk from participating in an early test of the system, which apparently worked.
Late last night, Elon Musk announced on Twitter that he was sending a “tweet through space via Starlink satellite.” A few minutes later he replied to the tweet, saying: “Whoa, it worked!!”
Not bad, considering the constellation currently consists of just 60 satellites, of which three aren’t even working (not a great attrition rate, but that’s another story). Back in May, when a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket deposited the smallsats at an altitude of 400 kilometers (250 miles), Musk said the system wouldn’t be of much use until the constellation reaches around 400 units and that it won’t reach “significant operational capacity” until 800 satellites. But as Musk’s tweet suggests, some functionality currently exists.
Once the system goes online at some point during the 2020s, Starlink will hopefully provide low-cost broadband internet to virtually every location on Earth, no matter how remote. Parked in low Earth orbit, the cross-linked satellites will create a kind of shell around the globe, providing internet access to paying customers on the ground.
Musk expects Starlink to be “economically viable” at 1,000 units, but the private aerospace company plans to launch as many as 12,000 satellites, each of which weighs around 500 pounds (227 kilograms). Actually, the system could contain even more than that, given SpaceX’s recent request to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to launch an additional 30,000 satellites.
When the first batch of Starlink satellites launched in May, they appeared as a brightly lit train in the sky. This deployment, and the prospect of many more, is a concern to astronomers, who worry that smallsat constellations will interfere with scientific observations of space.
Experts also worry that Starlink and other proposed constellations, including those in the works by Amazon and OneWeb, could increase the chances of a collision in space. These fears were bolstered this past September when the European Space Agency had to perform a “collision avoidance manoeuvre” to prevent its Aeolus satellite from potentially smashing into a Starlink satellite.