Constellations: understand everything about the satellite internet projects of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos

The two richest men in the world, Elon Musk (Starlink) and Jeff Bezos (Kuiper via Amazon), have a new hobby: sending tens of thousands of satellites into low Earth orbit to connect all of humanity to the Internet. In fact, according to a recent report by two United Nations agencies, approximately 3.7 billion people in the world are still deprived of it.

1 The declared goal… and the reality

While Kuiper expects to officially launch in a few months, Starlink celebrated its first anniversary in April. The promise is nice: “There is a need for connections in places that currently don’t have them”, and “where they are very limited or expensive”, announced Elon Musk last summer. But in reality, Musk’s service is only available in about 20 rich countries, which already have Internet coverage for most of their population, despite persistent white areas.

Anyway, and this is a bit of the absurdity of the project, the service is too expensive to be sold where it is really needed. It is in fact necessary to invest in a satellite dish and respective adapted router, for an initial price of 500 euros, now sold at 634 euros – because of inflation, justifies the company -, to which it is necessary to add delivery costs of 71 euros and a monthly subscription of 99 euros. Elon Musk points to 10 million subscribers to cover its costs and reduce the monthly fee to 80 euros. Hard at this price to imagine that Starlink can conquer its subscribers in Africa or India, where only 25% of the population is connected to the Internet.

two icon titleHow it works ?

Satellite Internet is nothing new. In France, Nordnet, Numerisat and SkyDSL provide a connection at a rate of between 40 and 60 euros per month. They target the few hundred thousand people who have neither ADSL nor a decent 4G network. Because, despite the very high-speed France plan, the public subsidies that accompany it and its delegation of public service, traditional operators prefer to invest in 5G antennas in the city center instead of covering the entire territory with fiber optics. Of note, the offers from Starlink and, tomorrow, from Kuiper promise better speeds – at least 100 MB/s – and, above all, better latency than the existing offers.

These performances are possible because its satellites are on average ten times lower in the atmosphere than the others. Starlink’s orbit 540 kilometers from Earth; it will be more or less 600 km for the ones from Kuiper. The network of satellites – the constellation – is decisive because it will be very dense. Musk wants to send 42,000! These satellites, much smaller than the usual models, are the size of a large washing machine and weigh just over 200 kg. About 2,000 of them are already in low orbit. As Amazon’s satellites are much larger, the multinational plans to send “only” 3,236. Several of them are also due to be placed in low orbit by the new Ariane 6 launcher.

3 icon title Constellation and Pollution

Satellite constellations pollute, in many senses of the word. The materials to build them already exist: millions of electronic components. So, a launch of Ariane 5 or 6 represents 600 to 900 tons of CO in fueltwo, that is, almost 5 million kilometers by plane or more than 40,000 days of gas heating. It should be noted that the higher the satellites are placed, the more gas emissions modify the climate. Once in orbit, a satellite’s lifetime is five to seven years. After that, it must be replaced. If we believe these multinationals, most of the wreckage of vehicles out of service will disintegrate in the atmosphere: that would be the advantage of low orbit. But hundreds of thousands of debris larger than a centimeter are already orbiting. This carries the risk of a chain collision, which happened precisely in February, when 40 Starlink satellites were destroyed. The multiplication of this debris poses a risk to much more crucial services, such as GPS or weather monitoring.

The International Astronomical Union, which brings together 13,000 astronomers from around the world, also warns of the light pollution generated by these machines, which, to sustain solar energy, must be made of reflective materials and can thus disrupt the large astronomical telescopes based on floor. In addition, the radio signals transmitted by these satellites can interfere with radio astronomy frequencies. “Recent advances in radio astronomy, such as producing the first image of a black hole or understanding how planetary systems form, were only possible through joint efforts to keep the sky free of interference”, warns the Union in a press release.

1er March 2022, Starlink delivers its first connecting beds to Ukraine. Some of them, funded by the Pentagon, are used by the military to fly drones. © Ukrinform/ZUMA/REA

4 icon titleWhat is Starlink doing in Ukraine?

Elon Musk saw the war in Ukraine as a fantastic opportunity to advertise his Starlink service. In that conflict, telecommunications were a major issue from the start, and after trying to hack, Russia found it easier to destroy the infrastructure. Several thousand antenna connection kits were provided by Musk with lots of photos and messages on social media. With the exception that a good third of the equipment was paid for by the Pentagon, which also paid an $800,000 delivery bill…

Furthermore, although the stated aim of the operation was originally to connect the population so that they could stay informed, the Ukrainian army very quickly monopolized the kits, in particular the specialized drone unit. These devices remotely controlled through this connection are used both for reconnaissance and as a weapon when loaded with explosives.

In April 2022, the Council of State suspended Starlink’s license to operate in France. He asks for a “public consultation” before granting it. © Sébastien Ortola/REA

5 icon titleA stepping stone to Mars

Of all this pollution, these billionaires don’t care. These constellations are part of a vast mad race to conquer space and its limitless resources. According to Musk, Starlink should bring in $30 billion a year. “We see this as a way for SpaceX to generate revenue that can be used to develop launch vehicles and spacecraft. We believe this is an essential stepping stone on the way to establishing an autonomous city on Mars and a base on the Moon,” explained the billionaire during a press conference in 2019.

Bezos, for his part, is banking on revenue from Kuiper signatures and space tourism to develop his O’Neill project, a reference to the “O’Neill cylinders” that Gerard K. O’Neill described in the book “The Cities from space”. He intends to build giant space colonies, “floating” in space, useful when Earth is no longer habitable. “Some could, for example, become national parks, others urban spaces”, explained the billionaire during a conference in the summer of 2021. “I want us to be able to imagine ideal environments, without limits. No rain, no earthquake. We would no longer need a planet. 🇧🇷

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