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SpaceX lasers define next era of Starlink technology

Love ’em or hate ’em, the 51 Starlink satellites launched this week took a step forward toward the goal of providing global broadband coverage for high-speed internet access, particularly for people across the world in rural and remote areas. On Monday, September 13, 2021, SpaceX launched its first whole batch of laser-equipped Starlinks. These SpaceX lasers are expected to improve how the satellite network relays broadband signals around the world. Ground stations are costly and not without geographical and political constraints on where they can be positioned on Earth.

These new inter-satellite SpaceX lasers will enable the network to operate with fewer ground stations. They’ll route data around the constellation (between satellites), rather than between Earth and space. Fewer “hops” between the ground and orbit reduces the time it takes for a signal to travel between destinations. The goal is to provide Starlink patrons with improved latency. That improvement should translate to faster internet speeds.

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Kate Tice, Starlink’s senior reliability engineer, said in 2020 – and as the Starlink team confirmed in a letter to Beta users as recently as summer 2021:

Once the space lasers are fully deployed, Starlink will be one of the fastest options available to transfer data around the world.

Spaceflight Now said:

The launch Monday night brings the total number of Starlink spacecraft SpaceX has launched to 1,791 satellites, including failed and decommissioned spacecraft, adding to the largest fleet ever put into orbit.

A tabulation by Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589 on Twitter), an astronomer and respected tracker of spaceflight activity, shows SpaceX currently has 1,420 operational Starlink satellites, with more than 100 additional craft moving into their operational positions in orbit.

Over the next few decades, SpaceX hopes to put something like 42,000 Starlinks into orbit.

SpaceX lasers take to the skies

Monday’s launch was the first time an entire batch of 51 laser links made it into orbit. But several were already tested in a handful of prior launches, beginning with a set of 10 that debuted in January 2021. According to CNET, the lasers are something SpaceX has long touted as part of its overall Starlink plan.

SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said during a panel discussion at the Space Symposium last month that the company has been rushing to develop the laser system since May. It hasn’t launched any routers to orbit since June 30. Two months is an exceptionally long pause for a program that has, at times, managed near-weekly launches to build up its satellite network. But Shotwell said the pause allowed the satellites launched on September 13 to be completely fitted with laser links. And, SpaceX hopes, the small batch will mark a transition to all Starlink satellites carrying laser crosslinks in the future. Shotwell commented:

We were hoping to do so a little bit sooner, but we’re working on our laser communication terminals …

A “huge leap forward” in tech

Echoing previous comments from CEO Elon Musk, Shotwell said at last month’s symposium that SpaceX is concentrating on providing Starlink service to a small market unreachable with conventional fiber connections. She said:

We’re looking forward to continuing to enhance the network by putting more capacity in space, and really looking forward to truly connect those that are very difficult to connect … Customers are great at selecting great service and great value, so we will find out over the next five or so years what is too much, and what’s not too much. I do believe that there is insatiable demand for data.

Youmei Zhou, a SpaceX engineer, hosted the company’s launch webcast. She called it a “huge leap forward” in tech.

The mission also marked a homecoming of sorts. It was the first Starlink launch from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in Northern California, a memorable setting for the private spaceflight company. Its first-ever test satellites – known as TinTin A and TinTin B – took flight from the base on February 22, 2018.

The first-stage booster launched and landed for the 10th time, continuing the company’s custom of booster recycling. It touched down on the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You in the Pacific Ocean and will be returned to port to see if it has an 11th flight in it at some point in the future.

A time-lapse image shows the passage of a Starlink satellite cluster, creating bright streaks through a telescope’s field of view.
A time-lapse image shows the passage of a Starlink satellite cluster, creating bright streaks through a telescope’s field of view at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory of Chile in November 2019. Image by CTIO, NOIRLab, NSF, AURA and DECam DELVE Survey.

Meanwhile …

Unfortunately, what the laser-equipped satellites did not do is address the ever-concerning controversy that Starlinks are problematically bright. They have the potential to interfere with the professional astronomical observations that have brought us our modern-day view of the cosmos. Although SpaceX has tried to address the issue, the satellites’ brightness still has the potential to disrupt observations of the night sky. At this rate, there’s little in the way of a future where people can look up and see the sky crawling with satellite lights.

SpaceX lasers: A tower of technical parts and machinery, colored mostly black and silver, sits in a white room.
SpaceX’s payload stack, onboarded with Starlink satellites and laser links at the bottom. Image via SpaceX.

Bottom line: The upgrade to new inter-satellite SpaceX lasers signals a new phase for the Starlink satellite broadband network.

Read more from EarthSky: What is that?! SpaceX’s Starlink satellites explained

Via Spaceflight Now

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