1 March, 2022

We need to talk about Elon Musk and his satellites.

Tesla, Twitter, or tabloids—love him, hate him, he's relevant. One way or another you have heard his name. So what about Elon Musk and his satellites? The 51 year old businessman has done some things in his time but now Musk has turned his attention to space. As a team of Earth Observation-ists and Data Scientists, we can’t help but be a little bit excited by the trajectory of what he might do. 

But first, SpaceX

Despite all of the fanfare that has surrounded Musk in recent years, his mission to ‘make humanity multiplanetary’ is one that most people can sympathise with. The Space Exploration Technologies Corp or SpaceX, as it is more commonly known, is his first venture into outer space. Since its inception in 2002 the aerospace company has been successful in many of their missions, including the first company to privately launch and return a spacecraft from Earth’s orbit and dock it on the International Space Station. 

Naturally, one begins to think about America and other world leaders' space efforts. At home in America, Musk has developed a relationship with NASA. In 2017 SpaceX won a contract to build spacecraft and fly astronauts on missions. In coming years there will be lots of developments to follow here as America, once again, seems to be concerned with getting to the moon and Mars. In fact, people are currently being recruited by NASA to participate in a year-long simulation to “study how highly motivated individuals respond under the rigour of a long-duration, ground-based simulation” a program which will test the preparedness of human life on Mars.

Starlink satellites

Recent conversations in academia and industry experts have reported that the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) is becoming crowded with satellites. Before the recent satellite growth, between ten and sixty satellites were launched annually until about 2010. Since, the number has skyrocketed (pun intended) over 1,800 launched in 2021 taking the total in LEO orbit to 7,500 according to the United Nations’ Outer Space Objects Index. The effect that this could have on other satellites and the space environment are extensive. These include space debris, collisions, traffic and effects for humans such as greater light pollution. Additional satellites in LEO could be beneficial for driving down the cost, availability and access to satellite imagery; a positive enabler for the EO industry because of our reliance on this data. 

SpaceX are one major contributor to the satellite population, including the 2,000 Starlink satellites they have in orbit currently. In one of his newer headline-making announcements; Musk declared that Starlink (associated satellite internet company) is planning to increase worldwide internet service and speed by sending constellations of thousands of satellites into orbit. The company is looking to launch 42,000 satellites eventually, in a mega constellation. With this capacity they proclaim to offer users access speeds between 100 Mb/s and 200 Mb/s in most locations, enabling high data rate activities to be lightning-fast. 

In the wake of the recent tsunami in Tonga, Starlink has assisted in remote villages regaining internet that has been inaccessible for nearly a month. Most recently, Starlink has supported Ukraine in their conflict with Russia, after the internet connection was disrupted. These acts of philanthropy prove that, even billionaires have the potential for empathy and a capacity for helping those in need. 

Love him, hate him, he’s relevant.  

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