Starlink satellites: Everything you need to know about the controversial internet megaconstellation

 graphic illustration of what Starlink satellites look like orbiting above Earth.
Starlink satellites provide internet all around the world, including in remote regions. (Image credit: Image created in Canva and furnished with Starlink satellite: Adrian Mann/Future and Earth image: Yuichiro Chino via Getty Images)

Starlink is the name of a satellite network developed by the private spaceflight company SpaceX to provide low-cost internet to remote locations. 

A Starlink satellite has a lifespan of approximately five years (opens in new tab) and SpaceX eventually hopes to have as many as 42,000 satellites in this so-called megaconstellation.

The current version of each Starlink satellite weighs approximately 573 lbs. (260 kilograms), according to Spaceflight Now (opens in new tab). As of November 2022, there are 3,271 Starlink satellites in orbit, of which 3,236 are operational, according to Astronomer Jonathan McDowell who tracks the constellation on his website (opens in new tab)

Related: Wild solar weather is causing satellites to plummet from orbit 

The size and scale of the Starlink project concerns astronomers, who fear that the bright, orbiting objects will interfere with observations of the universe, as well as spaceflight safety experts who now see Starlink as the number one source of collision hazard in Earth's orbit. In addition to that, some scientists worry that the amount of metal that will be burning up in Earth's atmosphere as old satellites are deorbited could trigger unpredictable changes to the planet's climate. 

Starlink satellite tracker

Long-exposure image showing a train of Starlink satellites passing over Uruguay on February 7, 2021.  (Image credit: MARIANA SUAREZ/AFP via Getty Images)
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Starlink satellites orbit approximately 342 miles (550 kilometers) (opens in new tab) above Earth and put on a spectacular show for observers as they move across the sky. This show is not welcomed by all and can significantly hinder both optical and radio astronomical observations. 

You don't need any special equipment to see Starlink satellites as they are visible to the unaided eye. The satellites can appear as a string of pearls or a "train" of bright lights moving across the night sky. Starlink satellites are easier to see a day or two after their launch and deployment then become progressively harder to spot as they climb to their final orbital height of around 342 miles (550 km). 

To find out when you can see a Starlink satellite near you, check out this Starlink locator website (opens in new tab) that details when and where to look for your next Starlink viewing opportunity. Our list of the best stargazing apps may help you with your Starlink viewing planning. If you want to see where all of the Starlink satellites are located in real-time check out this Starlink map (opens in new tab) showing the global coverage of each Starlink satellite as well as information on how many are currently in service, inactive or have burned up in Earth's atmosphere.  

Starlink coverage

To see current Starlink internet availability around the world, and if it's available where you are, Starlink has an interactive map (opens in new tab) detailing locations where Starlink internet is available, which areas are on the waitlist as well as areas that are "coming soon". 

"Starlink is ideally suited for areas where connectivity has been unreliable or completely unavailable," the Starlink main page states. "People across the globe are using Starlink to gain access to education, health services and even communications support during natural disasters."

More information about Starlink setup, along with answers to frequently answered questions, are available on the customer service page (opens in new tab).

The history of Starlink

SpaceX's first 60 Starlink internet communications satellites are released all at once in this animation of images taken during the successful May 23, 2019 launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. (Image credit: SpaceX)
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SpaceX's satellite internet proposal was announced in January 2015. Though it wasn't given a name at the time, CEO Elon Musk said that the company had filed documents with international regulators to place about 4,000 satellites in low Earth orbit.

"We're really talking about something which is, in the long term, like rebuilding the internet in space," Musk said during a speech in Seattle when revealing the project. 

SpaceX's satellite internet proposal was announced in January 2015. Though it wasn't given a name at the time, CEO Elon Musk said that the company had filed documents with international regulators to place about 4,000 satellites in Low Earth Orbit.

"We're really talking about something which is, in the long term, like rebuilding the internet in space," Musk said during a speech in Seattle when revealing the project. 

Musk's initial estimate of the number of satellites soon grew, as he hoped to capture a part of the estimated $1 trillion worldwide internet connectivity market to help achieve his Mars colonization vision. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has granted SpaceX permission to fly 12,000 Starlink satellites, and the company has filed paperwork with an international regulator to loft up to 30,000 additional spacecraft

To put that into perspective, as of Nov. 7, 2022, only 14,450 satellites have been launched in all of history with 6,800 currently active according to the European Space Agency (opens in new tab) (ESA).

SpaceX launched its first two Starlink test craft, named TinTinA and TinTinB, in February 2018. The mission went smoothly. Based on initial data, the company asked regulators for its fleet to be allowed to operate at lower altitudes than originally planned, and the FCC agreed (opens in new tab).

The first 60 Starlink satellites launched on May 23, 2019, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The satellites successfully reached their operational altitude of 340 miles (550 kilometers). 

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is prepared to launch the Starlink satellites into orbit from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.  (Image credit: SpaceX)
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Starlink's impact on astronomy

Within days of the first 60-satellite Starlink launch, skywatchers spotted a linear pearl string of lights as the spacecraft whizzed overhead in the early morning. Web-based guides showed others how to track down the spectacular display. 

"This was quite an amazing sight, and I was shouting 'Owowowow!' when the bright 'train' of objects entered into view," Netherlands-based satellite tracker Marco Langbroek told Space.com in 2019 via email. "They were brighter than I had anticipated."

That brightness was a surprise to almost everyone, including both SpaceX and the astronomical community. Researchers began to panic and shared photos of satellite streaks in their data, such as this trail image (opens in new tab) from the Lowell Observatory in Arizona.

They expressed particular concerns about future images from highly sensitive telescopes such as the Vera Rubin Observatory (formerly known as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope), which will study the entire universe in exquisite detail and is expected to come online in 2022. Radio astronomers are also planning for interference from Starlink's radio-based antennas. 

In photos: SpaceX launches 60 Starlink satellites to orbit

A train of SpaceX Starlink satellites are visible in the night sky in this still from a video captured by satellite tracker Marco Langbroek in Leiden, the Netherlands on May 24, 2019, just one day after SpaceX launched 60 of the Starlink internet communications satellites into orbit. (Image credit: Marco Langbroek via SatTrackBlog)
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The International Astronomical Union (IAU) expressed concerns in a statement released in June 2019. "Satellite constellations can pose a significant or debilitating threat to important existing and future astronomical infrastructures, and we urge their designers and deployers as well as policy-makers to work with the astronomical community in a concerted effort to analyze and understand the impact of satellite constellations," the statement said.

In April 2021, Thomas Schildknecht, the deputy director of the Astronomical Institute of the University of Bern, who represents Switzerland in the IAU, said at the European Space Agency's space debris conference that the union was calling on the United Nations to protect pristine night sky as cultural heritage against the uncontrolled expansion of megaconstellations.

In a report released in October 2022, the American Astronomical Society (ASS) likened the impact of megaconstellations on astronomy to light pollution. The report said the sky may brighten by a factor of two to three due to the diffuse reflection of sunlight off the spacecraft.

Related: Can you see stars in light polluted skies?

Starlink collision risk

SpaceX received additional backlash in September 2019, when the European Space Agency (ESA) announced that it had directed its Aeolus satellite to undertake evasive maneuvers and avoid crashing into "Starlink 44," one of the first 60 satellites in the megaconstellation. The agency took action after learning from the U.S. military that the probability of a collision was 1 in 1,000 — 10 times higher than ESA's threshold for conducting a collision-avoidance maneuver.

In August 2021, Hugh Lewis, the head of the Astronautics Research Group at the University of Southampton, U.K. and Europe's leading space debris expert, told Space.com that Starlink satellites represent the single main sources of collision risk in low Earth orbit. 

According to computer models, at that time, Starlink satellites were involved every week in about 1,600 encounters between two spacecraft closer than 0.6 miles (1 kilometer). That's about 50% of all such incidents. This number rises with every new batch of satellites launched into space. By the time Starlink deploys all 12,000 satellites of its first-generation constellation it could reach 90%, Lewis said.

Lewis also expressed concerns that Starlink's operator SpaceX, a newcomer into the satellite business, is now the single most dominant player in the field whose decisions can affect the safety of all operations in low Earth orbit.

End of lifespan deorbiting procedure

SpaceX plans to refresh the Starlink megaconstellation every five years with newer technology. At the end of their service, the old satellites will be steered into Earth's atmosphere where they will burn up. That is certainly commendable when it comes to space debris prevention, however, there is another problem. 

The vast amount of satellites that will be burning in the otherwise pristine upper layers of the atmosphere could alter the atmospheric chemistry and have unforeseen consequences for life on the planet. 

In a paper published in May 2021 in the journal Scientific Reports (opens in new tab), Canadian researcher Aaron Boley said the aluminum the satellites are made of will produce aluminum oxide, also known as alumina, during burn-up. He warned that alumina is known to cause ozone depletion and could also alter the atmosphere's ability to reflect heat.

"Alumina reflects light at certain wavelengths and if you dump enough alumina into the atmosphere, you are going to create scattering and eventually change the albedo of the planet," Boley told Space.com.

That could lead to an out-of-control geoengineering experiment, a change in the Earth's climate balance. The effects of such alternations are currently unknown.

Karen Rosenlof, an atmospheric chemistry expert at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told Space.com she too was concerned about the effects of the particles from the burning satellites in the atmosphere. Rosenlof has expertise in modeling the effects of geoengineering interventions. 

David Fahey, the Director of NOAA's Chemical Sciences Laboratory, and Martin Ross, a physics and meteorology scientist at the Aerospace Corporation, both told Space.com that more research is urgently needed to understand the effects of burning increasing amounts of satellites in the atmosphere. 

The problem, the scientists said, is that in those high layers of the atmosphere, the particles are likely going to stay forever. Boley said that while the number of satellites burning in the atmosphere will be considerably smaller than the number of meteorites, the chemical composition of the artificial objects is different, thus the presence of the products of their burning is something scientists know nothing about. 

"We have 54 tonnes (60 tons) of meteoroid material coming in every day," Boley said. "With the first generation of Starlink, we can expect about 2 tonnes (2.2 tons) of dead satellites reentering Earth's atmosphere daily. But meteoroids are mostly rock, which is made of oxygen, magnesium and silicon. These satellites are mostly aluminum, which the meteoroids contain only in a very small amount, about 1%."

As the accumulation of those particles would increase over time, so would the intensity of the effects. It thus cannot be ruled out that over decades the pollution from burning megaconstellation satellites could lead to changes on a scale akin to what we are currently experiencing with fossil-fuel-induced climate change

"Humans are exceptionally good at underestimating our ability to change the environment," said Boley. "There is this perception that there is no way that we can dump enough plastic into the ocean to make a difference. There is no way we can dump enough carbon into the atmosphere to make a difference. But here we are. We have a plastic pollution problem with the ocean, we have climate change ongoing as a result of our actions and our changing of the composition of the atmosphere and we are poised to make the same type of mistake by our use of space."

Starlink did not respond to Space.com requests for comment.

A Starlink satellite's lifespan can also be cut short by powerful geomagnetic storms.

On Feb. 3, 2022, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket made a routine and successful launch of 49 Starlink satellites from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. But only a day later, a geomagnetic storm above Earth pushed up the density of the atmosphere, increasing the drag on the satellites and dooming the bulk of them to an early death.

"Preliminary analysis show the increased drag at the low altitudes prevented the satellites from leaving safe mode to begin orbit-raising maneuvers, and up to 40 of the satellites will reenter or already have reentered the Earth's atmosphere," SpaceX wrote in an update on Feb. 8, 2022. 

Read more: Better space weather forecast could have saved SpaceX Starlink satellites from solar storm

Starlink satellite use in emergencies

Starlink internet speeds are said to be much faster for many users in rural regions compared to local options, although again, this varies by region.  (Image credit: STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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With the right equipment, access to Starlink internet can be achieved in remote locations within just a few minutes, making it a useful resource in emergencies. 

According to a statement on Starlink's official website "Without the bounds of traditional ground infrastructure, Starlink can be deployed in a matter of minutes to support emergency responders in disaster scenarios." 

"The Starlink team is proud to support and prioritize service for emergency responders around the globe and will continue to grow this support as our coverage areas expand." The statement continues. 

The benefits of Starlink internet service in emergencies have already been demonstrated in Ukraine and Tonga. 

Starlink, SpaceX's giant and ever-growing broadband constellation, has been a vital piece of Ukrainian communications infrastructure throughout the ongoing Russian invasion. Ukrainian government officials publicly requested Starlink terminals on Feb. 26, just two days after the invasion began, and the first ones arrived in the country on Feb. 28.

In early April, SpaceX and the U.S. Agency for International Development announced they had jointly delivered about 5,000 Starlink terminals to Ukraine, with SpaceX directly providing more than 3,000 of them. The number has grown considerably since then, to 25,000 or so, according to company founder and CEO Elon Musk.

The situation in Ukraine was not always smooth, as Musk noted in March 2022 that the Starlink terminals have been jammed near Ukraine conflict areas. The company was already working on an upgrade when Musk announced this, and he pledged a further pivot to cyber defense to keep the Starlinks operational.

In February 2022, at least 50 Starlink terminals were sent to the island nation of Tonga in the Pacific Ocean. The goal was to give its residents free Internet access, especially in remote villages. Tonga needed the terminals after suffering a massive volcano eruption and tsunami in January. At the time, SpaceX said the terminals will allow for communications to flow in some of the regions with the worst effects due to the eruption according to Reuters (opens in new tab).

SpaceX's plans for Starlink

SpaceX has stated that it will work with organizations and space agencies to mitigate the impacts of its megaconstellation. And the company has tried to assuage astronomers' concerns over Starlink's effect on the night sky. 

"SpaceX is absolutely committed to finding a way forward so our Starlink project doesn't impede the value of the research you all are undertaking," Patricia Cooper, SpaceX's vice president of satellite government affairs, told astronomers at a January 2020 meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Honolulu, Nature reported (opens in new tab)

SpaceX has taken action to this effect. For example, recently launched Starlink satellites sport visors designed to prevent sunlight from glinting too brightly off their most reflective parts. 

But the huge numbers of satellites in megaconstellations from SpaceX and other private space companies, such as OneWeb, suggest that light pollution and other issues may continue, and advocates have called for greater regulations from government agencies. 

"Here is a gift for the leaders of the world, a task more non-partisan than any other which has come before: protect our skies," stargazer Arwen Rimmer wrote in The Space Review (opens in new tab), a weekly online publication devoted to essays and commentary about space, in early 2020. 

How do Starlink satellites work?

The current version of each Starlink satellite weighs 573 lbs. (260 kilograms) and is, according to Sky & Telescope magazine (opens in new tab), roughly the size of a table. 

Rather than sending internet signals through electric cables, which must be physically laid down to reach far-flung places, satellite internet works by beaming information through the vacuum of space, where it travels 47% faster than in fiber-optic cable, Business Insider (opens in new tab) reported. 

Current satellite internet works using large spacecraft that orbit 22,236 miles (35,786 km) above a particular spot on Earth. But at that distance, there are generally significant time delays in sending and receiving data. By being closer to our planet and networking together, Starlink's satellites are meant to carry large amounts of information rapidly to any point on Earth, even over the oceans and in extremely hard-to-reach places where fiber-optic cables would be expensive to lay down. 

SpaceX's Starlink internet service consists of a ground terminal (right) and antenna for high-speed satellite internet. (Image credit: SpaceX)
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Users on the ground access the broadband signals using a kit sold by SpaceX. The kit contains a small satellite dish with a mounting tripod, a wifi router, cables and a power supply, according to the company's website (opens in new tab).

How you can access Starlink's internet service

SpaceX has a dedicated website to order Starlink terminals. Go to the main page of the Starlink website and scroll down to the section that says "Order Now (opens in new tab)." 

After plugging in your service address, you can see whether Starlink is available for your region. While pricing varies by region, a search for an address in Brooklyn in November 2022 gave a hardware price of $599.00, a one-time shipping and handling charge of $50.00, and a monthly service charge of $110.00.

Speeds are said to be much faster for many users in rural regions compared to local options, although again, this varies by region. "Users can expect to see download speeds between 100 Mb/s and 200 Mb/s, and latency as low as 20ms in most locations," the home page states.

Once your box arrives, you should see within it a Starlink kit (opens in new tab) that will allow you to connect to the Internet. A Starlink app, as well as a website user guide, are meant to guide you through the installation.

Additional resources

Explore Starlink satellites in more detail with this informative video from SpaceX (opens in new tab). Read how astrophysicist Ethan Siegel thinks SpaceX can fix the damage Starlink satellites are causing to astronomy, published in Forbes (opens in new tab)

Bibliography

NOIRLab, Report of the SATCON2 Workshop: Executive Summary, July 16, 2021 https://noirlab.edu/public/media/archives/techdocs/pdf/techdoc031.pdf (opens in new tab)

Boley, A., Byers, M. Satellite mega-constellations create risks in Low Earth Orbit, the atmosphere and on Earth, Scientific Reports, 20 May, 2021 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-89909-7 (opens in new tab)

McDowell, J. The Low Earth Orbit Satellite Population and Impacts of the SpaceX Starlink Constellation, The Astrophysical Journal Letters, April 6 2020 https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.3847/2041-8213/ab8016/meta (opens in new tab)

Massey R. et al. The challenge of satellite megaconstellations, Nature Astronomy, 6 November, 2020                                                 
https://www.nature.com/articles/s41550-020-01224-9 (opens in new tab)

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Tereza Pultarova
Senior Writer

Tereza is a London-based science and technology journalist, aspiring fiction writer and amateur gymnast. Originally from Prague, the Czech Republic, she spent the first seven years of her career working as a reporter, script-writer and presenter for various TV programmes of the Czech Public Service Television. She later took a career break to pursue further education and added a Master's in Science from the International Space University, France, to her Bachelor's in Journalism and Master's in Cultural Anthropology from Prague's Charles University. She worked as a reporter at the Engineering and Technology magazine, freelanced for a range of publications including Live Science, Space.com, Professional Engineering, Via Satellite and Space News and served as a maternity cover science editor at the European Space Agency.

With contributions from