Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
My kid brother John runs a small television, antenna, cable, and dish installation business in New Mexico. He’s been doing it for many years and he’s really good at it. He sends me pictures sometimes of huge flatscreen televisions he’s mounted on tile walls above fireplaces in extraordinarily expensive Santa Fe homes, stuff like that. He does nice work.
Lately, he’s been busy — really busy — doing Starlink installations. Starlink, as everyone probably knows, is Elon Musk’s space-based internet service provider. New Mexico is a huge, wide-open, mostly empty state with lots of mountains and pockets of wealth. It’s a booming market for Musk’s high-speed, low-latency, low-Earth-orbit service.
Starlink interests me. Not because I want it: I have inexpensive cable internet that does a great job for me. It interests me because it’s innovative, beautifully engineered, and one of the drivers of SpaceX (Starlink’s parent company) and Musk’s rocket business.
I have grown to appreciate Elon Musk’s style of engineering. He is a lot like the best of the entrepreneurial engineers with whom I work: smart, innovative, quirky, and somewhere on one or another spectrum. I like his openness, his willingness to fail spectacularly — and to let us watch. And I love that his rocket boosters land upright, sometimes two at a time.
Next time you see a television dish on someone’s house, note the arm rising up into approximately the middle of it. There’s a little receiver at the end of that arm; the dish is a parabolic reflector that focuses the signal from a faraway (geosynchronous) satellite on that receiver. (Sometimes, there are two receivers, and the dish focuses signals from a different satellite on each.) On internet-capable dishes, there’s a transmitter sharing space with the receiver, and the dish focuses the signal from that transmitter into a beam aimed at that far-away satellite.
Those aren’t Starlink dishes. Starlink dishes don’t have that arm sticking out, because Starlink dishes aren’t really dishes per se — they aren’t reflectors directing a signal toward a receiver. Rather, they’re what are known as phased array antennas. Each “dish” contains hundreds of little antennas in a honeycomb pattern. Sophisticated electronics and computers within the dish control the timing of the signal emitted by each of those little antennas so that the phases of the signals reinforce and cancel each other in a way that effectively aims the radio signal sent out.
None of that is necessary when dealing with a satellite that doesn’t move across the sky. But Starlink satellites are much closer than normal satellites and so move quickly. Starlink antennas have motors that will move them on their masts, but most of the satellite tracking is performed by the phased array, electronically shifting the angle of the emitted beam.
I read somewhere that Starlink now owns more than half of all functioning satellites in low Earth orbit. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s certainly plausible.
I’m thinking about Starlink today because I read that Russia has put the world on notice that it might shoot down such satellites if it deemed them military threats — or, presumably, if Ukraine keeps using Starlink services to coordinate its defense.
Elon Musk replied to the threat, observing that SpaceX can launch satellites faster than the Russians can launch anti-satellite missiles. (Seriously, this is what I love about the guy.) That’s probably true: SpaceX can put them up about 50 at a time, and can do it week after week. I doubt the Russians have extensive anti-satellite capability.
Of course, the Russians have demonstrated a willingness to dump a lot of debris into orbit, threatening the physical integrity of satellites, space stations, astronauts, etc. It’s easy to imagine them exploding things in the orbit used by Starlink, filling it with nuts and bolts and dangerous junk.
But the more I think about that, the less effective a technique it seems. Space is big: the orbit Starlink satellites occupy is a bit bigger around than the surface of the Earth, and just imagine how much debris you’d have to put in the air at ground level to go all the way around the planet and threaten a few thousand refrigerator-sized objects. And, of course, it’s hard to blow things up at a carefully controlled speed. That means that debris is going to rise (if moving fast) or fall (if moving slowly) until it enters an orbit above or below Starlink’s, perhaps crossing orbits occasionally but not zipping around picking off one satellite after another.
Finally, every Starlink satellite has little Krypton-fueled ion engines that can adjust the satellite’s position: they aren’t entirely passive targets.
This threat from Moscow, at least, seems empty.Published in