The next big thing in space? Internet-beaming satellite constellations

There's soon going to be thousands of Internet satellites in orbit. Here’s what you need to know.

Jeff Bezos recently surprised the world with his plan to launch 3,236 satellites offering Internet connectivity around the globe, which was essentially Amazon’s jump on the Internet-satellite bandwagon. Big names like OneWeb and SpaceX have already been working on their satellites for a while, though the initiative didn’t get the attention it deserved until recently.

Here are five key questions about the Internet-beaming satellite constellations, answered.

Why?

Out of the 7.7 billion people on Earth, only around 4.3 billion people currently have access to the Internet. Getting the rest of them online is as important as getting machines to learn on their own. Furthermore, connecting the globe has always been on mankind’s bucket list.

These aren’t the first attempts for global Internet. Facebook’s Internet.org, founded in 2013, brought new business models to make the Internet affordable and accessible to rural areas. But things didn’t go well for Facebook as by doing so, it faced criticism for violating net neutrality. Rumor has it that Facebook plans to launch Athena – its experimental Internet satellite – in 2019.

There are other initiatives around the world attempting to do the same thing but with different approaches. For example, Alphabet’s Loon uses high-altitude balloons at 18km to setup wireless networks around remote areas.

Why are THEY doing this?

OneWeb, founded in 2012 by Greg Wyler, aims to make the Internet accessible to “everyone, everywhere” and provide services to markets. The company had secured $1.25 billion in funding in March and seems to be on track.

SpaceX’s satellite internet constellation, known as Starlink, aims to do the same and also sell satellites for military, scientific and exploratory purposes. Elon Musk also sees Starlink generate revenue to help fund its interplanetary missions and Martian cities, once he gets people there.

Starlink’s test satellite

Project Kuiper, Amazon’s initiative, shares the same vision of providing Internet at all points around the globe. But there’s more to it than meets the eye. Getting everyone online means 4.4 billion new potential customers for Amazon.

They’re in for the race for space.

What about space debris?

Yes, there’s going to be tons of satellites in orbit, and once they become inoperable, they’ll deorbit and burn up in the atmosphere quickly. SpaceX, OneWeb and Amazon’s satellites will have to comply with the “orbital debris-mitigation” guidelines to avoid space debris. So it’s all good unless there’s an anomaly and one of them crosses paths with another one of the thousands of satellites.

Why don’t they coexist and share the same vision?

The idea of Internet satellite constellations is one of the latest high-tech projects in space and is yet to be proven. There’s been history of companies going bankrupt, due to the tremendous capital required to launch such large projects. That’s why entities working on a common goal coexist. But that’s not the case here.

OneWeb’s Greg Wyler actually put forward the idea of Internet-beaming satellite constellations in 2014, which he then discussed with Musk, who went forward on his own with Starlink in 2015.

Though all the three of them want to do something remarkable for humanity, they mean business, literally.

How long till the constellations are good to go?

OneWeb launched its first six satellites of the 650 satellite-constellation to LEO in February on a Soyuz-2 rocket.

SpaceX has plans to put around 12,000 satellites in three different orbital shells. Tintin A and Tintin B, Starlink’s first two test-flight satellites were launched in February 2018 on SpaceX’s Falcon 9. More test satellites are planned for this year and operation of the constellation could begin in 2020.

Amazon hasn’t revealed much about Project Kuiper except that the constellation would have 3,236 satellites. As aforementioned, Jeff Bezos left the world surprised with his late entry to the bandwagon.

OneWeb satellite constellation

There are exciting times ahead and we look forward to see the whole world light up with the Internet. Here’s to those three companies racing for space!

Will the Internet have a different name once all of the human population is on it?

This is the next big thing in space, and for humanity.

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