Internet From Space

Thousands of new Internet satellites are set to be launched into space in the coming years, promising connectivity for everyone, everywhere around the globe. However, the renaissance of space travel that this brings with it also poses risks.
The Cape Canaveral Space Center is once more a hive of activity. On the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, space travel is experiencing an amazing comeback here on Florida’s east coast. By 2011, the American National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA for short, had mothballed almost all of its space projects and the marshland area had been abandoned – the media were calling it the cemetery of American space dreams. The Apollo missions had already come to an end here in 1972. Although the start of the space shuttle program in 1981 provided a boost, the landing of the “Atlantis” on 21 July 2011 marked the end of this era too.

Now it is mainly private companies that are bringing life to the historic site. These include SpaceX, the space company belonging to ambitious Tesla co-founder Elon Musk, and Blue Origin. Amazon boss Jeff Bezos is also one of the equally dazzling personalities behind the revival. Meanwhile, the Cape Canaveral Space Center has once again become the busiest in the world.

At the center of all these activities is an iconic symbol – none other than the old 39A launch pad: the starting point for the first successful space mission that took people to the moon on 16 July 1969. However, this was where the catastrophe of the Challenger Shuttle also started out. The reusable space shuttle broke up shortly after launch in January 1986 and crashed back to Earth from a height of 15 kilometers, killing all seven astronauts on board.

Today the Launch Complex 39A, as NASA officially calls it, is reserved for Elon Musk and his SpaceX project. The latest highlight is a Falcon 9 rocket, which catapulted 60 satellites into space at once at the end of May 2019. After one hour of flight, they were deployed at 450 kilometers, a relatively low altitude for satellites, from where they used their own impetus to reach their end positions another 100 kilometers higher.

The goal of the mission: with the ambitious “Starlink” project, SpaceX aims to position a network of satellites in space in the coming years in order to offer a fast Internet connection at every point on Earth. It is only from space that the most remote areas, for example in the deserts of Africa or the middle of the vast oceans, can be reliably and relatively cheaply connected to the World Wide Web.

Although the “Falcon” rocket made a picture-perfect flight, just a few weeks after the launch of the project, SpaceX had to announce that their connection to three satellites had been completely broken, and they will probably burn up in the atmosphere in the foreseeable future. There are problems with the positioning of five of the other satellites, although this should be possible to solve from the ground. SpaceX intended to bring two satellites back down deliberately in order to gain experience with re-entry into the atmosphere and the associated destruction.

And for good reason: Experts expect the SpaceX satellites to have a short life of only about five years due to their low orbit. The operator would therefore have to ensure continuous replacement and launch new rockets with supplies into space every few weeks.

These 60 Internet satellites are only the beginning – Elon Musk is planning for up to 12,000 of them, which will orbit Earth in the coming years. After the twelfth launcher has been put into space, constant Internet coverage for most of the world should be possible; the first series to date is only sufficient for a test operation in parts of the USA. If Musk gets all the satellites up there – due to regulatory requirements, development must be completed by November 2027 – he expects revenues of around three million dollars per year. However, he is keeping quiet about the costs.

SpaceX is not the only company that is aiming to offer Internet from the depths of the universe: Europeans are also involved in this lucrative business. As early as February 2019, OneWeb launched the first Internet satellites into orbit, where around 600 are expected to provide network coverage. OneWeb is operated by Arianespace, a joint venture between the European aerospace company Airbus Group and the French group Safran. OneWeb hopes that the first commercial Internet connections will be established in 2021. The company will use Russian Soyuz rockets, which will take off from the space station belonging to Arianespace near the equator in Kourou, French Guiana, and from Baikonur in Kazakhstan. Investors in the two billion dollar project include Airbus, the beverage giant Coca-Cola and the Virgin Group belonging to British billionaire Richard Branson.

Die Freude über eine in absehbarer Zeit flächendeckende Internetverbindung wird allerdings im wahrsten Sinne des Wortes getrübt: Denn zu den in einer Sommernacht rund 450 natürlich sichtbaren Sternen am Himmel kommen nun Hunderte weitere, menschgemachte, hinzu. So sollen die ersten der Starlink-Satelliten schon mit bloßem Auge hell am Nachthimmel über verschiedenen Orten der Erde zu sehen sein. Sie leuchten zwar nicht selbst, werden auf ihrem Weg hoch über der Erde aber von der Sonne angestrahlt und reflektieren dieses Licht auf die Erde.

Ein weiterer Kritikpunkt gegenüber der Flut neuer Satelliten ist die damit verbundene Zunahme von Weltraumschrott. Schon heute stuft die NASA über 20.000 Objekte als extrem gefährlich ein, die um die Erde kreisen und einen Durchmesser von mindestens 10 Zentimetern haben. Diese Teile von alten Raumschiffen, Raketenstufen oder defekten Satelliten erreichen eine Geschwindigkeit von bis zu 28.000 Stundenkilometer – ein Crash könnte verehrende Folgen nicht nur für die ständig bemannte Internationale Raumstation ISS oder aktive Raumschiffe, sondern natürlich auch für die Internetsatelliten selbst haben. Dem will SpaceX vorbeugen: Bereits im Frühjahr 2018 hat das Unternehmen testweise eine „Fangmaschine“ in den Weltraum geschossen, mit dem nicht mehr funktionierende Satelliten wieder eingefangen werden sollen.

Text by Behrend Oldenburg
Photos: SpaceX