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Aerospace juggernauts SpaceX, Boeing and now Amazon hope to drastically improve satellite internet, one batch of low-orbiting satellites at a time. The most recent SpaceX launch added 60 satellites to their active fleet, an early fraction of the nearly 12,000 the company plans to set into orbit in the coming months.
SpaceX launched their satellites in quick succession, sending a string of fast-moving white dots streaking across the sky. In the Netherlands, the event incited more than 150 UFO sighting reports. After seeing astronomer Dr. Marco Langbroek’s video of the satellite caravan, it’s understandable why so many were concerned.
These aren’t your typical satellites
Traditional internet or TV satellites hover around 22,000 miles above the Earth. They are geostationary, meaning their orbit speed syncs with the Earth’s rotation so they stay in the same place relative to the ground. Their fixed position and distance from the Earth makes for a broad, constant service area; it also keeps them far out of natural sight.
Low-orbiting satellites fly much closer to the ground, somewhere between 110 and 1,200 miles up. At this height, gravity is more of a factor, so the satellites must stay in constant motion to keep from getting pulled out of orbit. They’ll be moving so fast, in fact, that a complete orbit could take about 90 minutes.
Combine low orbit altitude with constant, high velocity and these new satellites could be quite eye-catching, especially when streaking across an otherwise stationary skyscape. And when you consider there will be thousands of them up there, the potential disruption of the night sky is a bit disquieting.
Don’t worry, it won’t be as bad as it sounds
Excluding the few hours after a batch launch, it’s unlikely that you’ll see many satellites in the sky at any given time, if ever at all. If you do see one, you may even mistake it for an airplane. The difference is lights from airplanes blink, so if you see a high-speed, bright object in the sky that doesn’t blink, it’s probably a satellite. We see airplanes in the sky day and night, so what’re a few more streaks across the sky?
While there will be thousands of satellites up there, they will be spread across the globe and on varying orbit schedules. Unless you’re doing some serious stargazing, it’s unlikely that you’ll notice many of them in the sky at night. You don’t have to worry about seeing them during the day, either, as low-orbiting satellites are virtually impossible to see with the naked eye during the day.
But for astronomers, it could be a problem
While the occasional passing of a satellite through an astronomer’s field of view is likely annoying, it’s not what they’re most concerned about. National Geographic reports that some of these satellites will use the same or similar radio frequencies that radio astronomers use.
The interference from low-orbiting satellites could hinder, or at the very least inconvenience, astronomers using radio telescopes. Combine that with the nuisance of having them occasionally streaking across the field of view, and it’s understandable why astronomers are less than thrilled about the SpaceX initiative to launch thousands of low-orbiting satellites.
A potentially small price to pay for unparalleled broadband progress
The FCC reports that approximately 19 million Americans, mostly residents of rural areas, lack access to broadband service. That means about 6% of the U.S. population is underserved. And for many nations, that number is much higher.
Low-orbiting satellite initiatives by SpaceX, Amazon and others seek to instantly bring internet to places all over the world where coaxial and fiber-optic cables don’t reach. Plus, the technology will elevate satellite internet from an “available” service to a truly desirable one.
Satellite internet is currently burdened with high latency, relatively slow speeds and strict data limits. Low-orbit satellites will drastically lessen the traditional shortcomings of satellite internet, establishing a service that will likely rival cable or fiber-optic internet.
These satellites will offer a quality internet connection to places that otherwise wouldn’t have one, and bring healthy competition to the places that do.
When will the new satellite internet services be available?
SpaceX announced their satellite internet service, Starlink, will require six launches to begin service in the northern U.S. and Canada, which could happen by the end of this year. As of now, no details about available internet plans have surfaced, so potential speeds, pricing and data limits are yet to come.
Follow our experts in the Resource Center for further information about the future of satellite internet — and keep your eyes to the sky for a chance to see it in action!