SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet service has finally arrived at McMurdo Station off the coast of Antarctica, meaning it’s now available – at least nominally – on all seven continents.
The National Science Foundation, which funds US Antarctic Program in McMurdo and elsewhere, announced the news in a tweetsaying “NSF-supported USAP scientists in #Antarctica are over the moon! Starlink is testing a polar service with a newly introduced user terminal at McMurdo Station, increasing bandwidth and connectivity for science support.“
McMurdo, as a major center for climate science and geology, among other things, already had a pretty solid satellite connection through a traditional provider. But as you can imagine, competition is fierce for the limited bandwidth available. The addition of a Starlink terminal should at least partially alleviate these problems.
However, this is not quite the traditional setup. Like SpaceX noted“In a place as remote as Antarctica, this capability is enabled by the Starlink Space Laser Network.”
Space lasers sound cool, and they really are, as they allow for high-speed communications between distant satellites—as long as you can keep the laser pointed in the right direction. SpaceX is testing this in a limited capacity, with the ultimate goal of allowing Starlink satellites to form a sort of mesh network that can connect even remote locations like Antarctica to the Internet.
Of course, that’s what satellites are designed to do in the first place, but you do it everywhere. Think about it: if you’re sending a signal to a satellite in low-Earth orbit over Antarctica, where will it send that signal? It’s not like some other parts of Antarctica have great internet. It must send this signal up to the rest of the world where it can be relayed to a ground station connected to the network. Then it goes back the same way.
This may sound a bit convoluted, but network architecture is convoluted by nature.
Laser links will be expanded in future versions of the Starlink satellites, which should help make the network as a whole faster and more resilient. And SpaceX isn’t the first or only one to use space-based lasers for communication — NASA predated them by several decades and saw it as a way to provide high-speed internet for Artemis.