This story was first published in The Aleph Report.
In 2015, Elon Musk announced the creation of project StarLink. The goal is to build a satellite broadband network that offers fiber-like access from anywhere in the world.
To achieve this, they plan to launch 4425 minisatellites and build the largest Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellation to date. Just to put this into perspective, according to the Index of Objects Launched into Outer Space in 2017 there where 4635 satellites in orbit around Earth. That’s an increase of 8.91% compared to 2016. SpaceX intends to double that total in less than six years.
Musk isn’t chasing a crazy dream though. There are existing satellite providers like Iridium or Intelsat. However, both networks rely on old and bulky technology. Some, like Intelsat, orbit in high altitude geostationary orbit (~36.000 km). It gives them much larger coverture of the planet’s surface but adds massive latency problems. These networks are suitable for non-critical connections, but not for low-latency ones. On the other hand, systems like Iridium went for Low Earth Orbits. The massive costs of launching and building the satellites, though, restricted how many they could put in orbit (66). A smaller network reduced their coverage and translated into low bandwidth and speeds.
New manufacturing processes are enabling the construction of much smaller and cheaper satellites. Cheaper satellites are more accessible to put into orbit and populate the LEO and VLEO (Very Low Earth Orbit) with a large mesh of next-generation satellites. This mesh can deliver under 50ms latency performance.