Dubbed ‘a cellphone tower in space,’ the satellites aim to eliminate internet dead zones on Earth.
The space satellite company led by Elon Musk has launched the first set of Starlink satellites with ‘direct-to-cell’ capabilities, T-Mobile announced yesterday (3 January).
A total of 21 satellites were sent to low-Earth orbit on the Falcon 9 rocket, six of which have the direct-to-cell capabilities and, according to SpaceX, will act as “a cellphone tower in space” aiming to eliminate signal dead zones on Earth.
Field testing is due to begin soon with plans to begin rolling out text messaging this year and calling and internet browsing in 2025.
T-Mobile is just one of SpaceX’s partners on this mission and Mike Katz, its president of marketing, strategy and products, said the company wants to keep its customers connected “even in the most remote locations”.
“Today’s launch is a pivotal moment for this ground-breaking alliance with SpaceX and our global partners around the world, as we work to make dead zones a thing of the past.”
According to SpaceX, the satellites will allow for mobile phone connectivity “wherever you can see the sky”. However, in a post on X, Musk noted that while it’s a great solution for locations with no connectivity, it’s not a competitive replacement for existing terrestrial cellular networks.
The launch is the latest test for satellite services as a means to eradicate communication dead zones around the world, including Ireland.
And in 2022, the EU launched its own satellite communication strategy, which will see a €6m investment to create reliable and fast internet across Europe and remove communication dead zones.
Space traffic jams
However, while these satellite services could improve connectivity in certain internet black spots on Earth, the sheer volume of satellites crowding low-orbit Earth is causing problems in the sky.
According to satellite tracking website Orbiting Now, there are more than 8,000 satellites in low-Earth orbit at the time of writing.
The exponential increase in satellites can essentially lead to space traffic jams, with knock-on effects such as a greater chance of collisions, interference with other scientific missions, the dangers of satellite’s re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, growing space debris and light pollution, which could cause problems for astronomers.
In July 2023, an international study also found that SpaceX’s Starlink satellites are emanating “unintended electromagnetic radiation” that has a detrimental effect on the field of radio astronomy. Lead author Federico Di Vruno said that while astronomers have previously theorised about this kind of radiation, latest observations “confirm it is measurable”.
When the EU launched its satellite strategy, the EU Commission also proposed a Space Traffic Management system to tackle some of the issues associated with increased space traffic and ensure space operations remain safe and orbits remain usable.
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