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Starlink satellites: Everything you need to know about the controversial internet megaconstellation



Starlink is the name of a satellite network developed by the private spaceflight company SpaceX to provide low-cost internet to remote locations.


A Starlink satellite has a lifespan of approximately five years and SpaceX eventually hopes to have as many as 42,000 satellites in this so-called megaconstellation.

The current V2 Starlink satellite version weighs approximately 1,760 lbs (800 kilograms) at launch, almost three times heavier than the older generation satellites (weighing in at 573 lbs or 260 kg), according to Spaceflight Now.


How many Starlink satellites are there?

As of July 2023, there are 4,519 Starlink satellites in orbit, of which 4,487 are operational, according to Astronomer Jonathan McDowell who tracks the constellation on his website.


The size and scale of the Starlink project concerns astronomers, who fear that the bright, orbiting objects will interfere with observations of the universe, as well as spaceflight safety experts who now see Starlink as the number one source of collision hazard in Earth's orbit. In addition to that, some scientists worry that the amount of metal that will be burning up in Earth's atmosphere as old satellites are deorbited could trigger unpredictable changes to the planet's climate.


Starlink satellites orbit approximately 342 miles (550 kilometers) above Earth and put on a spectacular show for observers as they move across the sky. This show is not welcomed by all and can significantly hinder both optical and radio astronomical observations.


You don't need any special equipment to see Starlink satellites as they are visible to the unaided eye. The satellites can appear as a string of pearls or a "train" of bright lights moving across the night sky. Starlink satellites are easier to see a day or two after their launch and deployment then become progressively harder to spot as they climb to their final orbital height of around 342 miles (550 km).


Our list of the best stargazing apps may help you with your Starlink viewing planning. If you want to see where all of the Starlink satellites are located in real-time check out this Starlink map showing the global coverage of each Starlink satellite as well as information on how many are currently in service, inactive or have burned up in Earth's atmosphere.


SpaceX's satellite internet proposal was announced in January 2015. Though it wasn't given a name at the time, CEO Elon Musk said that the company had filed documents with international regulators to place about 4,000 satellites in low Earth orbit.


"We're really talking about something which is, in the long term, like rebuilding the internet in space," Musk said during a speech in Seattle when revealing the project.


SpaceX's satellite internet proposal was announced in January 2015. Though it wasn't given a name at the time, CEO Elon Musk said that the company had filed documents with international regulators to place about 4,000 satellites in Low Earth Orbit.


"We're really talking about something which is, in the long term, like rebuilding the internet in space," Musk said during a speech in Seattle when revealing the project.


Musk's initial estimate of the number of satellites soon grew, as he hoped to capture a part of the estimated $1 trillion worldwide internet connectivity market to help achieve his Mars colonization vision. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has granted SpaceX permission to fly 12,000 Starlink satellites, and the company has filed paperwork with an international regulator to loft up to 30,000 additional spacecraft.


To put that into perspective, as of Nov. 7, 2022, only 14,450 satellites have been launched in all of history with 6,800 currently active according to the European Space Agency (ESA).


SpaceX launched its first two Starlink test craft, named TinTinA and TinTinB, in February 2018. The mission went smoothly. Based on initial data, the company asked regulators for its fleet to be allowed to operate at lower altitudes than originally planned, and the FCC agreed.


The first 60 Starlink satellites launched on May 23, 2019, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The satellites successfully reached their operational altitude of 340 miles (550 kilometers).


Within days of the first 60-satellite Starlink launch, skywatchers spotted a linear pearl string of lights as the spacecraft whizzed overhead in the early morning. Web-based guides showed others how to track down the spectacular display.


"This was quite an amazing sight, and I was shouting 'Owowowow!' when the bright 'train' of objects entered into view," Netherlands-based satellite tracker Marco Langbroek told Space.com in 2019 via email. "They were brighter than I had anticipated."


That brightness was a surprise to almost everyone, including both SpaceX and the astronomical community. Researchers began to panic and shared photos of satellite streaks in their data, such as this trail image from the Lowell Observatory in Arizona.


They expressed particular concerns about future images from highly sensitive telescopes such as the Vera Rubin Observatory (formerly known as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope), which will study the entire universe in exquisite detail and is expected to come online in 2022. Radio astronomers are also planning for interference from Starlink's radio-based antennas.


The International Astronomical Union (IAU) expressed concerns in a statement released in June 2019. "Satellite constellations can pose a significant or debilitating threat to important existing and future astronomical infrastructures, and we urge their designers and deployers as well as policy-makers to work with the astronomical community in a concerted effort to analyze and understand the impact of satellite constellations," the statement said.


In April 2021, Thomas Schildknecht, the deputy director of the Astronomical Institute of the University of Bern, who represents Switzerland in the IAU, said at the European Space Agency's space debris conference that the union was calling on the United Nations to protect pristine night sky as cultural heritage against the uncontrolled expansion of megaconstellations.


In a report released in October 2022, the American Astronomical Society (ASS) likened the impact of megaconstellations on astronomy to light pollution. The report said the sky may brighten by a factor of two to three due to the diffuse reflection of sunlight off the spacecraft.


Follow Pegasus Aerospace System on Twitter @systemaerospace. Follow us on Twitter @systemaerospace or Facebook, Linkedin and Instagram @pegasusaerospace.


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