Elon Musk's SpaceX approved to launch 7,518 Starlink satellites into orbit

SpaceX plans to launch about 12,000 internet-providing satellites into orbit over the next six years.

  • SpaceX plans to launch 1,600 satellites over the next few years, and to complete its full network over the next six.
  • Blanketing the globe with wireless internet-providing satellites could have big implications for financial institutions and people in rural areas.
  • Some are concerned about the proliferation of space debris in Earth's orbit.

The Federal Communications Commissions has approved the last key request of SpaceX's plan to provide the globe with wireless internet beamed from thousands of satellites, a project known as Starlink.

On Thursday, the FCC said the private aerospace company can launch an additional 7,518 satellites into orbit, bringing the total number of approved satellites to about 12,000. The commission first approved the launch of 4,400 Starlink satellites in March following the company's successful deployment of two test satellites. SpaceX plans to launch the first 1,600 satellites within the next few years, and to launch a full network of internet-providing satellites over the next six.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the goal is to create a new kind of global communications system.

"This is quite an ambitious effort," Musk said in 2016. "We're really talking about something which is, in the long term, like rebuilding the internet in space."

Low Earth orbit

Internet-providing satellites have been around for years, as I wrote in an article on the Starlink project from April. However, they're typically expensive and provide slower service than land-based internet infrastructure. This is mainly because it takes a relatively long time for a signal to travel from the satellite to the host. SpaceX plans to solve this problem by launching satellites into low Earth orbit–just hundreds of miles up, in order to reduce the "latency," or time it takes for the signal to travel.

However, the problem with this low-orbit solution is that it reduces the amount of surface area to which each satellite is able to provide service. That means SpaceX will need lots of satellites if it wants to cover the globe with wireless service. To accomplish this, SpaceX plans to launch about one-third of its 12,000 satellites into low Earth orbit, about 680 miles above ground, and the remainder into very-low Earth orbit, about 210 miles up. The satellites would communicate in a peer-to-peer system, using a combination of lasers and radio waves.

The implications of a faster connection

In addition to providing internet access to rural areas and other places where infrastructure is lacking, one institution stands to gain tremendously from the Starlink network: banks.

In the financial practice known as high-frequency trading, shaving mere microseconds off of latency can give traders an extraordinarily lucrative advantage in the market. Financial institutions would likely shell out billions for dedicated service, which would help SpaceX maintain its costly constellation of satellites.

The dangers of space debris

Some are concerned about the proliferation of space debris in Earth's orbit, including NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine.

The U.S. military already tracks more than 500,000 pieces of space junk flying around the planet at lethal speeds.

"My favorite example is an innocuous little screwdriver that slipped through an astronaut's grasp and has been circling low Earth orbit at up to 21,600 miles per hour for the last 35 years," said FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. "At these speeds, even a common household item can wreak havoc."

On Thursday, the FCC published a proposal designed to limit the amount of space debris brought into orbit by the satellite industry. The commission also signed off on plans for three other companies to launch internet-providing satellites into orbit: Kepler, Telesat and Leosat, all of which are competing with SpaceX to build the world's dominant satellite internet network.

Why space junk is more lethal than a bullet

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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

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Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.