SpaceX To Use Starlink For Internet On Mars & Starship To Clean Space Debris

SpaceX Starship prototype NASA
The upper half of a SpaceX (dummy) prototype for NASA's human lunar lander for the agency's Artemis program. Image: Austin Barnard/Supercluster

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Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) plans to use its Starlink internet satellites for not only providing broadband internet connectivity to remote areas on Earth but also for providing connectivity between Earth and Mars. This was revealed by the company's Chief Operating Officer and President Ms. Gwynne Shotwell during a talk with Time Magazine.

The executive, who has been named as one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people, provided details on her company's plans for Starlink and Starship – which is SpaceX's next-generation crew and cargo launch vehicle platform currently under development at the company's facilities in Boca Chica, Texas.

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Ms. Shotwell's remarks come as SpaceX gears to launch another batch of Starlink satellites into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) today. The company's satellite constellation consists of roughly 700 small-sized spacecraft, and through it, SpaceX hopes to make broadband internet access evenly available throughout the United States.

In response to a question about potential applications for Starlink, SpaceX's president explained the risky nature of the LEO satellite broadband business and how Starlink will form an integral part of SpaceX's founding mission of making humanity a multi-planetary species through enabling crewed missions to Mars.

According to Ms. Shotwell:

"So Patrick there were lots of reasons to enter into the telecom business.  The companies always want growth and this was a good opportunity for growth for us, but there's other reasons as well. A low earth orbiting broadband constellation has never been successful.  We always take on huge, visionary goals. And this was a goal worth taking on. No one has yet been successful, in fact Elon is always talking about [how] this business is littered with dead bodies, with companies that have not made it. So it was a challenge for us to go do.

So that was one reason. The second reason was once we take people to Mars, they're gonna need a capability to communicate. In fact, I think it will be even more critical to have a constellation like Starlink around Mars. And then of course you need to connect the two planets as well, so we need to make sure we have robust telecom between Mars and back to Earth."

SpaceX's COO during her Time 100 talk. Image: Time Magazine

SpaceX Open To Possibility Of Using Starship For Removing Space Debris

In addition to Starlink, the executive also highlighted her company's plans for SpaceX's Starship launch vehicle and spacecraft. In an industry that designs its products for mission-specific cases, Starship is perhaps the only platform that aims to meet different objectives.

For instance, SpaceX has already won a NASA award for the Starship upper stage being used as a lunar lander for the agency's Artemis program. Ms. Shotwell's firm also intends to use customized Starship variants to serve as in-orbit fuel tankers that aim to prepare the upper stage spacecraft for long-haul missions to the Moon and to Mars, with SpaceX already having won another NASA award to demonstrate this system. The company's founder Mr. Elon Musk has expressed his belief earlier this month that the system should be ready for orbital refueling in 2022.

In addition to the two use cases mentioned above (and a third being crewed missions to Mars), Ms. Shotwell also highlighted that SpaceX can use Starship for cleaning up orbital debris that currently poses a threat to the International Space Station (ISS) and missions to all orbits.

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Her response came to a query about SpaceX's potential plans for mitigating and removing space debris:

"In fact, the Starlink program was a great opportunity for s to have a pretty big voice in that [space debris] and also learn our own lessons. We originally started this constellation at much higher altitude. That was what we had applied our license to. But when we found that satellites at that higher atltitude could be in orbit for centuries or millenia, that didn't sound great to us. Because there will always be failures of satellites, as you mentioned there's rocket bodies litering the space environment and dead satellites littering the space environment. So we've requested to bring the entire constellation to a lower altitude, so that these satellites decay much quicker. And in fact we inject into a lower altitude so if for whatever reason right after launch they're not working well, they come back to Earth, they break up, of course, but they basically leave their orbital positions very quickly.

And I do want to put in a plug for Starship here. Starship is an extraordinary new vehicle capability. Not only will it decrease the costs of access to space, it's the vehicle that will transport people from Earth to Mars. But it also has the capability of taking cargo and crew at the same time, and so it's quite possible that we could leverage Starship to go to some of these dead rocket bodies, other people's rockets of course, basically go pick up some of this junk in outer space [EMPHASIS ADDED]. It's not easy, it's not going to be easy, but I do believe that Starship offers the possibility of going and doing that. And I'm really excited about it."

In addition to making re-entering into the Earth's atmosphere easy, reducing the altitude of Starlink satellites also improves their latency. This is critical for marketing the constellation to early adopters who will set the tune for mass-market adoption, and also for convincing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to grant SpaceX taxpayer funds for providing internet connectivity to rural America.

Using Starship to clean up some of the orbital debris will be a first-of-a-kind mission profile for a vehicle in the astronautic industry. SpaceX navigates the lower-half its Falcon 9 rocket back to Earth from space by using nitrogen gas thrusters for re-orientation. This has provided the company with experience of navigating vehicles while they are at orbital altitudes, and this experience should prove in handy if SpaceX tries to clean up orbital debris with Starship.

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