By Ryan Whitwam
SpaceX made history recently when it launched a record 143 satellites on a single rocket. Among the plethora of spacecraft were ten new Starlink internet satellites. According to CEO Elon Musk, these are the first nodes in SpaceX’s network that have fully operational laser communication systems, allowing the satellites to talk to each other without ground stations for faster, more expansive coverage.
Last weekend’s launch was also notable because it deployed its payload in a polar orbit, which uses more fuel than placing things in an equatorial orbit. Objects in a polar orbit will eventually pass over the entire surface of the planet because their movement is perpendicular to the Earth’s rotation. That’s why most mapping satellites are in polar orbits. Starlink satellites in polar orbits can also help boost coverage, but this also means they’ll pass over areas with no ground station coverage.
The solution, apparently, is lasers. It’s always fun when the solution is lasers.
The batch of ten Starlink satellites includes a finished version of the laser intersatellite links the company tested on a few other nodes last year. As these satellites pass over the poles, there will be no visible ground stations to relay data. However, the lasers can transfer directly between satellites, keeping them connected to the rest of the constellation.
Musk says that during last year’s test, the lasers beamed hundreds of gigabytes of data between nodes, and that could have benefits beyond the coverage boost. Moving data directly between satellites could speed up the network and help keep latency at a minimum — anything that decreases hops to the ground will make the network more dynamic.
The good news is that SpaceX plans to add the same laser intersatellite links to all the satellites it launches next year. There are almost 1,000 in orbit right now, and SpaceX is authorized to deploy as many as 12,000, but it has asked the FCC to let it launch up to 30,000 more on top of that.
Currently, Starlink internet service operates in parts of the northern US and Canada, offering speeds in excess of 100Mbps. For those in rural areas who were making do with ancient satellite internet or barely passable DSL, this is a big step up. The service will expand as SpaceX launches more satellites to eventually offer access globally. Well, unless you’re in Russia.