Europe: satellites put into orbit by the thousands!

Starlink, owned by the Space X group, continues to be talked about. Europe is doing all it can to compete with the US satellite network, and concern is growing among astronomers.

Thursday, November 17, 2022 will remain a historic date. The Commission, the Council and the European Parliament decided to dedicate 2.4 billion euros to the financing of a constellation of satellites that could come into operation at the end of 2024. Called Iris, an acronym for infrastructure for resilience and secure interconnection by satellite, it intends to to compete with the American Starlink program, which since 2019 has turned the satellite telecommunications market upside down. Its ambition is clear: to provide high-speed Internet access from space across the Earth’s surface, thanks to constellations of low-orbiting satellites. Its owner, Elon Musk, CEO of the maker of SpaceX launchers and Tesla electric cars, is proud to have 700,000 subscribers worldwide today, including 6,500 in France. Another 700,000 are also awaiting delivery of connection equipment.

A journey in a Falcon Starlink models are about 3 meters long and 1.5 meters wide, by about 20 centimeters thick. This flat shape allows you to have between 40 and 60 of them in the SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher fairing. © STARLINK

In addition to this consumer commercial success claimed by the entrepreneur, the outbreak of war in Ukraine on February 24, 2022 highlighted another Starlink application. Indeed, during their offensive, the Russians destroyed much of the ground’s communications infrastructure. Mykhailo Fedorov, the Ukrainian Minister of Digital Transformation, had the idea to solicit Elon Musk. Who was pleased to offer Ukrainians 10,000 Starlink connection kits, allowing their troops to communicate in encrypted mode and receive information from their allies, such as the position of Russian military sites. The US military itself would consider relying on satellite constellations to improve data transmission between command centers and fighter jets or fighter drones. Even to follow the trajectory of hypersonic missiles, Russian and Chinese, for example. A great candidacy that did not escape Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for the Internal Market, during the vote on the Iris project. He explained that it was vital to have a space communication tool in case of conflict ” for the economy, security and defense of States members ».

This relatively recent rise in the importance of satellite constellations is still in its infancy. Starlink announced on August 25 that mobile phones will soon be able to use its satellites. Initially, this service will allow the sending of emergency SMS in high mountains, at sea or in all other areas of the globe without a telephone network; eventually it will also allow you to browse and make calls. Apple’s iPhone 14 should therefore be one of the first consumer smartphones to integrate a chip capable of connecting directly to Starlink. This offer will compete directly with existing satellite telephony systems such as Cospas-Sarsat, Spot, Iridium, etc., all with the main disadvantage of requiring the purchase of a specific device.

An increased risk of space collisions

The massive arrival of satellites in low Earth orbits, however, is making people fearful. Observers thus noticed that the installation of this extraordinary constellation is equivalent, in some way, to an appropriation of space, by definition extranational. A bottleneck that worries other satellite operators, scientific, meteorological, remote sensing, etc., because it would increase the probability of space collisions. With, as a consequence, a multiplication of debris rendering these low orbits useless. On September 2, 2019, the European Space Agency had to maneuver one of its Earth observation satellites to avoid a collision with a Starlink model.

Last criticism, and not least: in 2020, professional astronomers strongly protested against light pollution induced by thousands of Starlink satellites, which leave long trails in astronomical images, to the point of rendering them unusable. Elon Musk promised to fix it… by painting its satellites black to make them less shiny.

The company SpaceX, owner of Starlink, will have around 2025 12,000 satellites in operation. Eventually, about 42,000 will cover the entire Earth’s surface. © STARLINK

How the Starlink network works

  1. Earth stations connect the Internet to satellites.
  2. Communications are transmitted from satellite to satellite.
  3. Individual devices receive and send information.
  4. The antennas concentrate the flow of information on the nearest satellite.
  5. Satellites can replace wired community connections.



> : The stargazing and astronomy website Star Walk devotes a chapter to the Starlink system and explains how to locate these satellites in the night sky.

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