Elon Musk's Satellite Trains Are Shaking Up the Night Sky

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Apr. 8 2021, Published 3:18 p.m. ET

In North Texas on April 7, SpaceX's Starlink satellite train surpassed the horizon in a graceful parade. This train is just the latest in Elon Musk's satellite internet company's adventure beyond the atmosphere.

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People across the globe can see satellite trains pass overhead much slower than a shooting star, and many are wondering where they're coming from. What are these satellites doing, and are people actually using the connection? 

Starlink, Elon Musk's satellite internet, is super exclusive.

Unsurprisingly, Starlink satellite internet is extremely restricted in scope. Head to the company's website and you'll see a line that reads, "Starlink is available to a limited number of users per coverage area at this time. Orders will be fulfilled on a first-come, first-served basis."

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That's Musk's typical modus operandi. He maintains a level of exclusivity in all his ventures, SpaceX and Tesla alike. Perhaps that's because he's going after so much, seemingly all at once.

Starlink launches are ramping up.

SpaceX launched eight satellite-carrying rocket journeys in the first quarter of 2021 alone. This is a big leap from last year's pace, when the company had 14 missions over the entire year. Musk is on track to beat that number multiple times over.

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Most of these launches contain 60 Starlink satellites, although some might have less if the company is dealing with new types of missions. Some are successful, but it has been a pretty bumpy road for Starlink in this wild adventure. On Feb. 16, the company attempted to recover all 60 Starlink satellites but could only account for 59—because one was lost in the Atlantic Ocean.

Meanwhile, SpaceX uses Falcon 9 rockets and boosters for the Starlink missions. Reportedly, the company feels ready to launch a manned mission later this month. Despite past issues, the most recent launch out of Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida was deemed a success. SpaceX could have thousands of satellites in space in due time. 

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SpaceX isn't the only company striving for satellite internet.

Believe it or not, Musk isn't the first to do what he's doing with Starlink satellite trains. This is a LEO (low earth orbit) mesh, and there are other LEO competitors. According to CP Ventures, "LEO is defined as an Earth-centric orbit with an altitude of fewer than 1,200 miles."

The competitors include:

  • Amazon Project Kuiper
  • OneWeb
  • Telesat
  • European Union Consortium Led By Airbus
  • Hongyun, Hongyan, and Galaxy Space
  • Kepler Communications

This isn't even an exclusive list and it's already long. Word on the street says that Boeing and Viasat are targeting LEO constellations, but there hasn't been documentation.

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There are companies targeting the higher earth orbit area, like O3b mPOWER and Astranis. This is a competitive landscape that's developing in real-time.

It will take time to determine how this will impact existing broadband networks, especially since many towns and cities are adopting city-based broadband to promote price-lowering competition. One thing is for certain. It could help bridge the gap for those in remote areas without internet access, if it ever becomes affordable for low-income households.   

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