SpaceX has a plan to slowly fill the skies with satellites in hopes of beaming broadband internet connectivity back down to earth. While the plan is still in its early stages, the Starlink constellation has its first user: Elon Musk. On Tuesday morning, the SpaceX CEO typed out the first known tweet to be sent via the satellite internet system. "Sending this tweet through space via Starlink satellite," Musk tweeted. He followed it up by saying, "Whoa, it worked!!"
SpaceX's Starlink project still has a way to go before its offering internet service to people who aren't high-ranking executives within the company — and hopefully it'll come soon because the last thing we need is Elon Musk to have his own, private internet service that ensures he will never log off, no matter what. The company is planning on putting at least 12,000 tiny internet satellites into orbit that will communicate with each other and create a space-based internet network. It's an ambitious plan, especially considering that the constellation will consist of nearly six times the number of operational spacecraft currently in orbit, according to data published by the Union of Concerned Scientists. SpaceX doesn't project completing the planned 12,000 craft network until 2027, but it appears the company already has broader ambitions. Earlier this week, Space News reported that new documents suggest the company plans on expanding the network to as many as 30,000 satellites. Thus far, there are only 60 in orbit.
Assuming SpaceX can pull this plan off, it could represent a major step toward closing the digital divide. People living in rural areas continue to lag behind more populated areas in terms of internet access and speeds. In the United States, at least 19 million people living in rural areas are without access to any broadband internet connection according to the Federal Communications Commission. (It's worth noting that the agency's numbers have come into question because of faulty reporting methods. Microsoft conducted its own study that estimates as many as 162 million Americans don't have access to broadband internet services, the majority of whom live in rural areas.) Globally, the issue is even worse. It's estimated that as many as 3.8 billion people will still be without any sort of internet connection by the end of 2019, according to the United Nations. A Guardian report last year found that internet infrastructure growth has been slowing over the last two decades as well, despite about half the world's population still remaining disconnected.
Satellite internet solutions like SpaceX's Starlink could present a potential solution to this problem. Because the technology doesn't require the same type of infrastructure required to expand fixed or wired broadband services, it makes it considerably easier to deliver high-speed access to people who live off the beaten path. There will be no shortage of competition for SpaceX to pull off this feat, though. Upstart company OneWeb is racing to get more than 30 satellites into orbit by the end of the year and plans to start offering its services to consumers as early as 2020. Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin also announced a plan earlier this year for a cluster of more than 3,000 satellites that will beam down internet service.
Of course, these competing services won't come without a bit of controversy. While providing cheap and more accessible internet services is a laudable goal, there are concerns that the massive collections of satellites will start to clutter the sky. While the satellites themselves are tiny — SpaceX's in particular have been described as being about the size of a pizza box — they are quite bright. So bright, in fact, that astronomers have raised concerns about light pollution. Some estimates project that these satellites will be as bright as Polaris, the north star — though Musk has assured everyone that they won't be that visible, if at all. Others have suggested that "flares" or reflections from the satellites could produce brief flashes of light that are as bright as Venus or Jupiter. Combine the brightness of those objects with the frequencies that the satellites will be operating at, which is expected to be close to the same frequencies used by radio astronomers to study the sky, and there's a significant risk of interference in the study of space. Then there's the risk — perhaps even likelihood — that these massive constellations of satellites will run into each other, creating a considerable amount of orbital debris.
A considerable amount of work will have to be done to ensure that providing people access to the internet won't limit our access to the skies. While internet connectivity is an absolute necessity in today's world and could help level the playing field for many rural and currently disconnected regions, maintaining our access to the cosmos shouldn't be so easily sacrificed.