I could probably be described as a SpaceX enthusiast. I catch their launches when I can, and I’ve watched the development of Starship with great interest. But the side-effect of SpaceX’s reusable launch system is that getting to space has become a lot cheaper. Having excess launch capacity means that space projects that were previously infeasible become suddenly at least plausible. One of those is Starlink.
Starlink is SpaceX’s satellite Internet service. Wireless and cellular internet have helped in some places, but if you really live out in the sticks, satellite internet is your only option. And while satellite Internet isn’t exactly new, Starlink is a bit different. Hughesnet, another provider, has a handful of satellites in geostationary orbit, which is about 22,000 miles above the earth. To quote Grace Hopper, holding a nearly foot-long length of wire representing a nanosecond, “Between here and the satellite, there are a very large number nanoseconds.”
SpaceX opted to do something a bit different. In what seemed like an insane pipe dream at the time, they planned to launch a satellite constellation of 12,000 birds, some of them flying as low as 214 mile altitude. The downside of flying so low is that they won’t stay in orbit as long, but SpaceX is launching them significantly faster than they’re coming down. So far, nearly 1,600 Starlink satellites are in orbit, in a criss-crossing pattern at 342 miles (550 km) up.
This hundred-fold difference in altitude matters. A Hughesnet connection has a minimum theoretical latency of 480 ms, and in reality runs closer to 600 ms. Starlink predicts a theoretical minimum of under 10 ms, though real-world performance isn’t quite that low yet. In the few weeks I’ve had the service, ping times have fallen from mid-60s down to 20s and 30s. The way Starlink works right now, data goes up to the closest satellite and directly back to the connected ground station. The long-term plan is to allow the satellites to talk directly to each other over laser links, skipping over the ground stations. Since the speed of light is higher in a vacuum than in a fiber-optic cable, the fully deployed system could potentially have lower latency than even fiber Internet, depending on the location of the endpoint and how many hops need to be made.
I got a Starlink setup, and have been trying out the beta service. Here’s my experience, and a bonus hack to boot.