Constellations: Understand everything about Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos’ satellite Internet projects

Constellations: Understand everything about Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos' satellite Internet projects

The two richest men in the world, Elon Musk (Starlink) and Jeff Bezos (Kuiper via Amazon), have a new hobby: sending tens of thousands of satellites into low Earth orbit to connect all of humanity to the Internet . Indeed, according to a recent report by two United Nations agencies, approximately 3.7 billion people in the world are still deprived of it.

1 The stated goal… and the reality

While Kuiper hopes to officially launch in a few months, Starlink celebrated its first anniversary in April. The promise is sympathetic: “There is a need for connections in places that do not currently have them”, and “where they are very limited or expensive”, Elon Musk announced last summer. But, in reality, Musk’s service is only available in about 20 rich countries, which already have Internet coverage for the majority of their population, despite persistent white areas.

Anyway, and this is a bit of the absurdity of the project, the service costs far too much to be sold where it is really needed. It is indeed necessary to invest in a satellite antenna and its adapted router, for an original price of 500 euros, now sold 634 euros – because of inflation, the company justifies -, to which it is necessary to add costs delivery of 71 euros and a monthly subscription of 99 euros. Elon Musk is aiming for 10 million subscribers to cover his costs and lower the monthly rate to 80 euros. Difficult at this price to imagine that Starlink can conquer its subscribers in Africa or India, where barely 25% of the population is connected to the Internet.

2 Icon TitleHow it works ?

Satellite Internet is nothing new. In France, Nordnet, Numerisat and SkyDSL provide a connection at a rate between 40 and 60 euros per month. They target the few hundred thousand people who have neither ADSL nor a decent 4G network. Because, despite the very high-speed France plan, the public subsidies that accompany it and their delegation of public service, traditional operators prefer to invest in 5G antennas in the city center rather than covering the entire territory with optical fiber. To stand out, the offers from Starlink and those, tomorrow, from Kuiper promise better speeds – at least 100 MB/s – and above all better latency than existing offers.

These performances are possible because their satellites are on average ten times lower in the atmosphere than the others. Those of Starlink orbit 540 kilometers from Earth; it will be rather 600 km for those of Kuiper. The network of satellites – the constellation – is decisive because it will be very dense. Musk wants to send 42,000! These satellites, much smaller than the usual models, are the size of a large washing machine and weigh just over 200 kg. About 2,000 of them are already in low orbit. Since Amazon’s satellites are much larger, the multinational plans to send “only” 3,236. Several of them should also be put into low orbit by the new Ariane 6 launcher.

3 Icon Title Constellation and Pollution

Satellite constellations pollute, in many senses of the word. There are already the materials to build them: millions of electronic components. Then, a launch of Ariane 5 or 6 represents in fuel from 600 to 900 tons of CO2, i.e. nearly 5 million kilometers by plane or more than 40,000 days of gas heating. It should be noted that the higher the satellites are placed, the more the gas emissions modify the climate. Once in orbit, the lifespan of a satellite is five to seven years. After that, it has to be replaced. If these multinationals are to be believed, the bulk of the debris from out-of-service vehicles will disintegrate in the atmosphere: this would be the advantage of low orbit. But hundreds of thousands of debris larger than a centimeter are already orbiting. This entails the risk of a chain collision, which happened precisely in February when 40 Starlink satellites were destroyed. The multiplication of this debris represents a risk for much more crucial services such as GPS or climate monitoring.

The International Astronomical Union, which brings together 13,000 astronomers from around the world, also warns of the light pollution generated by these machines, which, to support solar energy, must be made of reflective materials and could thus disturb the large astronomical telescopes based in ground. In addition, the radio signals transmitted by these satellites could interfere with radio astronomy frequencies. “Recent advances in radio astronomy, such as producing the first image of a black hole or understanding how planetary systems form, have only been possible through concerted efforts to keep the skies free from interference,” alarm the Union in a press release.

1er March 2022, Starlink delivers its first connecting beds to Ukraine. Some of them, financed by the Pentagon, are used by the army to pilot drones. © Ukrinform/ZUMA/REA

4 Icon TitleWhat is Starlink doing in Ukraine?

Elon Musk saw the war in Ukraine as a fantastic opportunity to advertise his Starlink service. In this conflict, telecommunications have from the outset been a major issue, and after having attempted hacks, Russia found it easier to destroy the infrastructure. Several thousand connection kits with antennas have been provided by Musk with many photos and messages on social networks. With the exception that a good third of the equipment was paid for by the Pentagon, which also paid an $800,000 delivery bill…

Moreover, although the stated objective of the operation was originally to connect the population so that they could continue to be informed, the Ukrainian army very quickly monopolized the kits, in particular the specialized unit in drones. These devices controlled remotely through this connection are used both for reconnaissance and as a weapon, when loaded with explosives.

In April 2022, the Council of State suspended Starlink’s operating license in France. He asks for a “public consultation” before granting it. © Sebastien Ortola/REA

5 Icon TitleA stepping stone to Mars

Of all this pollution, these billionaires do not care. These constellations are part of a vast headlong rush to conquer space and its unlimited resources. According to Musk, Starlink should eventually bring in $30 billion a year. “We see this as a way for SpaceX to generate revenue that can be used to develop launch vehicles and spacecraft. We believe this is an essential stepping stone on the path to establishing an autonomous city on Mars and a base on the Moon, ”explained the billionaire during a press conference in 2019.

Bezos, for his part, is banking on income from Kuiper subscriptions and space tourism to develop his O’Neill project, a reference to the “O’Neill cylinders”, which Gerard K. O’Neill described in the book “The Cities from space “. He intends to build giant space colonies, “floating” in space, useful when the Earth is no longer habitable. “Some could, for example, become national parks, others urban spaces,” explained the billionaire during a conference in the summer of 2021. “I want us to be able to imagine ideal environments, without limits. No rain, no earthquake. We would no longer need a planet. »