Starlink launches V2 mini-satellites with ‘space lasers’

Artist's illustration of Starlink's satellites communicating with lasers

Artist’s illustration of Starlink’s satellites communicating with lasers

By Ameya Paleja,
published by Interesting Engineering, 3 October 2023

Data transfers between satellites in the constellation can now reach speeds of 100 Gbps without involving ground stations.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has achieved yet another milestone in space-based internet services after launching new versions of its satellites that can communicate via lasers. In a tweet, service provider Starlink confirmed that it had launched to orbit its next-generation satellites last week. Space-based internet services took a giant leap when SpaceX launched Starlink’s first satellites just over three years ago. The service has grown rapidly thanks to SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 rockets and an increasing number of users looking to connect to the internet while being located remotely. The services also came in handy during emergencies, such as the violent earthquake in Tonga and the continued Russian aggression in Ukraine that began last year. The service, which has one million subscribers as per estimations earlier this year, is now looking to improve its offering as competition warms up in the sector.

Starlink’s Mini V2 satellites

Starlink first launched satellites with laser-based communication capabilities way back in 2021. The first batch of satellites was launched to polar orbit and provided internet services over Alaska, where setting up ground stations was challenging.

Ground stations are intermediaries between Startlink’s satellites and data centers where information is stored. While these remain critical in ensuring that Starlink can connect you to the internet, the service has been looking for ways to reduce data transfers between satellites and ground stations – this is where laser-based communication comes in.

Called Optical Intersatellite Links, these space lasers allow satellites within the constellation to communicate with each other. Since this method bypasses the constant communication between the ground station and satellites, it helps improve internet speeds for customers and reduces the latency of responses.

According to Starlink’s tweet, its constellation will be equipped with more than 8,000 such lasers that enable inter-satellite communication with pinpoint accuracy even as they are thousands of miles apart. Data transfers on each such laser link can be conducted at speeds of 100 Gbps.

The future ahead

Starlink is looking to increase the applications of its space-based internet services to areas such as the maritime and aviation industries. With an increasing number of satellites in its constellation, it is confident that it can meet the demands of providing global coverage required by these industries.

Apart from business customers, Starlink may also want to keep its existing base of individual customers happy as competition in the sector has increased. While Amazon’s Kuiper project that was envisioned alongside Starlink failed to take off, another potential rival, OneWeb, has completed setting up its constellation and is expected to begin offering services soon.

Even as surveys suggest that Starlink’s internet services are faster than broadband connections in most countries where it operates, the service would be keen to put sufficient distance between itself and new entrants in the sector and stay ahead. A higher number of satellites in orbit will also ensure that Starlink’s network remains more reliable, even as more users continue to sign up for its services around the globe.

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