Starlink, the next generation of internet services envisaged by Tesla CEO and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, is now well within its initial beta phase. The service, being a subdivision of SpaceX, is aimed at providing high quality, low latency internet to areas where access to the internet is either impracticable or extremely unreliable. The satellites used in Starlink are much closer to Earth than traditional satellite internet, resulting in ultra-low latency and a smoother internet experience with speeds up to 150mbps. All that is required is a simple installation by the user, involving a supplied satellite dish to be positioned somewhere where there is an unobstructed view of the sky. The Starlink app for iOS and Android helps the user place their satellite receiver in an optimal location for the best coverage.
Starlink Beta is available in some parts of the US, Canada, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England (but service does vary between Northern and Southern parts of England). There is an upfront cost of $499 (£439) for the router and dish required to connect, as well as a service charge of $99 (£89) a month. While this is typically expensive compared to similar speeds broadband providers in the UK are offering, Starlink again reiterate that the service is ideal for those who previously were unable to access the internet. As society has undergone a technological and digital revolution in the past few decades, access to the internet has now become essential – particularly as many people have been forced to work at home online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, Starlink has been met with a plethora of criticism and resistance from fellow astronomers. They claim that the bright light emitted from the satellites interfere with their observance of the night sky – particularly during dusk and dawn. As Starlink continues to expand, with thousands of satellites being launched into low earth orbit every year, this is a problem that is critical to the work of astronomers. As of yet, approximately 1,500 Starlink satellites are in orbit, according to spacenews.com.
The controversy surrounding the brightness of these satellites eventually found its way onto the desk of the Federal Communications Commission (the FCC). Many argued that the FCC should conduct an environmental review of the satellites, with one of Starlink’s satellite internet competitors, Viasat, calling for all subsequent launches of Starlink satellites to be halted until such a review is complete. The FCC responded to these requests by stating:
“after considering the record and claims… we conclude that the issues raised do not justify the need for an [Environmental Review]”.
They also concluded that:
“although we do not find that the record before us merits preparation of an [Environmental Review] under NEPA, we conclude that it nonetheless would serve the public interest under the Communications Act for SpaceX to ensure that it does not unduly burden astronomy and other research endeavours”.
The FCC did mirror the concerns of astronomers by reporting that they will continue to monitor the impact Starlink constellations will have on the observance of the night sky by astronomers – but they said SpaceX has taken steps to mitigate this impact by insulating satellites with a reflective resistant coating. According to a study by Tregloan-Reed, part of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), these new darker satellites (nicknamed ‘DarkSat’) were 55% fainter when it was at its final orbit, compared to the previous iteration of Starlink satellites. He further said that:
‘The DarkSat coating does push the satellite beyond being able to be seen with the naked eye”.
It would seem to many that the issue was therefore laid to rest. However, following the FCC’s refusal to conduct an environmental review into Starlink, Viasat filed a lawsuit to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia asking for these satellite launches to be halted and that the FCC did not properly approve the satellites. Viasat also issued concerns around space debris, competitive injury, orbital dangers and risks as well as light pollution during the course of the proceedings. The judges however were not persuaded that Viasat had fulfilled the criteria for proving that the FCC improperly approved of the satellites due to the lack of an environmental review. As such, Viasat’s plea was dismissed.
It is yet to be seen if Viasat wishes to continue pursuing legal action against Starlink – on these grounds on any others. However, what is certain is that as the satellite program continues to expand, Starlink should be ready to defend its program on all fronts.