Is Starlink HFT for all?

Orbital updates

by Kevin Dowd, Pitchbook

Elon Musk‘s SpaceX is one of the most valuable VC-backed companies in the world, with a current worth of $33.4 billion, according to PitchBook data. The company’s president indicated this week it could spin out one of its prime assets: Gwynne Shotwell reportedly said at a private investor event on Thursday it is “likely” SpaceX will pursue an IPO of its Starlink unit, which plans to use a network of hundreds of satellites to offer internet services around the globe.

Thursday also brought news from one of SpaceX’s primary rivals in the satellite-powered internet industry. OneWeb, which is backed by SoftBank, successfully launched 34 new satellites from a cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the latest additions to a planned network of nearly 650 orbiting transponders.

Earlier in the week, a rocket startup called Astra emerged from stealth after reportedly raising more than $100 million in venture capital. Astra plans to conduct low-cost, high-frequency launches for companies like OneWeb that want to blanket the skies in satellites.

Blue Origin, which is also in the business of powering satellite launches, might have received a boost of its own this week. Regulatory filings show Jeff Bezos has liquidated about $3.5 billion in Amazon stock over recent days. Bezos said in 2017 he sells $1 billion in Amazon stock every year to fund Blue Origin’s operations. As he famously put it a year later: “The only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel.”

News of all the successful launches and piles of funding, though, only added to the consternation of people who have dedicated their professional lives to watching the stars.

In the wake of OneWeb’s Thursday launch, The New York Times published a story about the disturbed astronomers who worry OneWeb’s satellites will produce chatter that interferes with the sorts of radio waves used to monitor and learn about faraway stars.

Considering some other recent events, it seems fair to be concerned. SpaceX and its existing Starlink satellites—which are highly reflective—have already been wreaking havoc on interstellar observation. For months now, astronomers have been taking to Twitter with otherwise useful images ruined by bright streaks of light bouncing off satellites. Experts like astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell say that if the trend continues, it would “represent a serious change to the night sky.”

And there’s reason to think it might continue. SpaceX and OneWeb are far from alone in their plans for sweeping satellite constellations. Amazon and Facebook are believed to be planning networks of their own. And startups like Planet, Spire Global and Swarm Technologies have similar aims.

The obvious solution here, of course, would be for satellite companies to be a little more conscious of the products they’re putting into the skies. Musk has already pledged to make changes in Starlink’s satellites, tweeting that SpaceX cares “a great deal about science.” And there are already some safeguards in place. OneWeb was reportedly required to cooperate with radio astronomers before the launch of its satellites in an effort to avoid crossing wires (so to speak).

But what is it they say about the best laid plans? Maybe Starlink will indeed fix its over-reflective satellites. But as the Earth’s orbit becomes more crowded, even a small percentage of carelessly designed satellites could contaminate the night skies for us all.

And sure, there are probably more immediate concerns out there than astronomers struggling to photograph some far-off star. But astronomy is, I think, an important tool humans use to figure out who we are, where our world came from, and what our future might hold. It was radio astronomy—the kind threatened by OneWeb—that allowed scientists last year to take the first photograph ever of a black hole.

It would be a shame if the science of improving communications and knowledge here on Earth comes at the expense of the science concerned with the rest of the universe. It doesn’t have to.

Feb 9, 2020 (additional text links have been added by BizTT)

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Medical applications of internet linked technologies:

A recent article reminded me that 5G will make remote medicine including surgeries realistic. I’ll keep looking for global applications. Tom Simonite, WIRED – “Surgeons won’t all become remote workers overnight, and internet infrastructure evolves slowly, but with 5G, eventually, there might always be a doctor in the house. “

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