Elon Musk's SpaceX is known for its frequent launches, which now dominate the space industry. But the satellites that the rockets send to space are just as important for the company as the launches. Starlink is SpaceX's answer to providing global, high-speed internet coverage using a network of thousands of satellites buzzing around the planet in a region known as low Earth orbit (LEO), about 342 miles above the Earth's surface.
SpaceX launched its first batch of Starlink satellites in 2019. Adoption of the service has ballooned since then. The company has said Starlink has more than 2 million active customers and is available on all seven continents and in over 60 countries.
“This growth is uncharacteristic in the sense of its magnitude. Whereas prior satellite service providers have ramped up to anywhere at most between 500,000 to a little bit over a million subscribers. And this has taken, you know, a ten-year period, Starlink's race to 2 million subscribers has taken only the better part of two years,” says Brent Prokosh, a Senior Affiliate Consultant at Euroconsult.
A Falcon 9 rockets launches a Starlink mission on January 20, 2021.
Experts estimate that the global market for consumer satellite services, including TV, radio, and broadband internet, was worth over $92 billion in 2022. And Starlink could be in a good position to capture a big piece of the market. Although initially conceived for the consumer segment, Starlink's offerings have expanded to serve enterprise customers including in the maritime and aviation industries.
“Starlink's importance to SpaceX overall as a company is imperative. Euroconsult estimates that, optimistically, by the end of 2023, this business of Starlink could represent upwards of 40% of SpaceX's overall business. This total would be somewhere in excess of $3 billion generated from Starlink,” Prokosh says.
Starlink has been praised for its ability to connect remote parts of the world that would otherwise not have access to reliable internet. The service has also become indispensable in areas hit by natural disasters, and, more recently, during times of conflict, particularly in the Russia-Ukraine war.
“The big benefit of Starlink and how it's being used in Ukraine today is communications. It's providing a pathway for the military, for civilians to stay connected to the outside world. It allows a pathway for the military to communicate with each other and to provide command and control direction to their forces,” says Kari Bingen who is the Director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Ukrainian forces set up Starlink satellite receivers to provide connection for civilians at Independence Square after the withdrawal of the Russian army from Kherson to the eastern bank of Dnieper River, Ukraine, on November 13, 2022.
Metin Atkas | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
But Starlink's growing influence is garnering condemnation from critics who say Musk is meddling in geopolitics. Meanwhile, the scientific community has its own concerns.
“The astronomical community got concerned about the first launch of the Starlink satellite a few years ago because the projection of the full constellation of several tens of thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit was immediately seen as an interference to both the optical observation and to radio observation,” says Piero Benvenuti, who is the Interim General Secretary, International Astronomical Union.
To find out more about Starlink's rapid expansion and if it can continue, watch the video.