Starlink satellites. Image: SpaceX/Starlink
Over the past year, SpaceX has launched more than 500 satellites into Earth orbit to build its Starlink mega-constellation, which aims to make satellite internet available from practically anywhere on the planet.Now, Starlink is inviting people to give their space-based internet platform a whirl—you can apply to be a beta-tester at this link.Once you’ve submitted your email and zip code, Starlink will send you a confirmation note that reads: “Starlink is designed to deliver high speed broadband internet to locations where access has been unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable. Private beta testing is expected to begin later this summer, followed by public beta testing, starting with higher latitudes.”
The internet has dramatically reshaped human civilization, and access to it is considered by many to be a basic human right. Still, only a little more than half of the global population has internet access, with poorer and rural communities particularly impacted by this digital divide.SpaceX is the most prominent company to try to fill this massive gap in service with Starlink, though companies like OneWeb are also racing to launch satellite internet constellations. The ultimate goal is to deploy a mesh network of thousands of laser-messaging satellites, so that virtually everyone on the planet is within range of space infrastructure that can be used to link up to the web.Starlink is not intended to replace traditional internet service providers, especially in cities where the satellite service will not be as efficient or competitive. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk envisions Starlink as a convenient internet provider that can deliver decent internet—meaning, about one gigabit per second, at latencies of about 30 milliseconds—to people that lack broadband access."It's very important that you don't need a specialist to install it," Musk said, according to Ars Technica. "There's just two instructions and they can be done in either order: point at sky, plug in."It’s not yet clear how many beta testers will be selected by Starlink, or how the company will utilize them. However, in April, Musk tweeted that the company expects to begin these Starlink by the autumn of 2020.While Starlink and its rivals are well on the way to expanding global internet access, these mega-constellations have also been criticized for their bright, distracting trails across the night sky. When the first large batches of Starlink satellites began to launch last year, astronomical organizations and amateur stargazers expressed concern and dismay over the light pollution caused by the bright reflections of the spacecraftThe International Astronomical Union, which represents more than 13,000 members, said that it “embraces the principle of a dark and radio-quiet sky as not only essential to advancing our understanding of the Universe of which we are a part, but also as a resource for all humanity and for the protection of nocturnal wildlife,” according to a 2019 statement.“We do not yet understand the impact of thousands of these visible satellites scattered across the night sky and despite their good intentions, these satellite constellations may threaten both,” the IAU warned.To address these concerns, SpaceX has added glare-reducing sunshades to its newer batches of satellites. As these fleets in orbit spirals up from hundreds to thousands of individual satellites, it will be essential to ensure that they don’t interfere with existing spacecraft and that they don’t pollute one of humanity’s most precious resources—an unfettered view of the night sky.