Our Universe, podcast hosted by Aurelian Balan
00:55 Great Lakes Stargaze Star Party
01:41 What is Starlink?
07:20 Who is Aurelian Balan?
13:61 How will this change the current satellite internet on offer?
15:15 How we’ll adjust the movement of the satellites
20:33 Who’s in charge of all these satellites?
26:01 What Aurelian thinks we need to change right now
The transcript below has been edited for clarity and space.
Well, hello nerd friends. Tim Gillen back with you host here at the Team Nerd Tech Show, and I want to introduce our guest today, Aurelian Balan.
Aurelian is an associate professor of physics and astronomy at Delta college, which is a college in mid Michigan, in the Tri-Cities area. The Tri-Cities areginaw, Bay City, and Midland, in thea central part of the Lower Peninsula―Central East of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan.
Aurelian and I met each other at an astronomy star party. I’m an astronomy buff and a hobbyist, and an amateur astronomer, which I have been for a good many years.
I go to these star parties with my big telescope , with a bunch of other ned-types, and we gather out in the middle of nowhere where it’s nice and dark, during a new moon: when there’s no moon. This is so we can look at deep space objects. Primarily nebulae, galaxies, binary stars, double stars, that kind of thing.
This was the Great Lake Stargaze, which is held in September every year here in Michigan. It’s been going on for 17 years and ‘s a terrific star party. They’ll often have guest speakers―good ones. This year, one of the good ones was Aurelian Balan who spoke about Starlink.
And that’s what this segment is about.;hat Starlink is, and why it matters to us in small business.
Starlink is an initiative just getting underway by Elon Musk―the Tesla guy―and he has that outfit called SpaceX, which is doing space shots.
His outfit is underway to launch a whole bunch of satellites for providing internet access down to the globe. And I mean the whole globe. The plan is for the entire populated part of planet earth to have internet access. Tthese are going to be low earth orbit satellites, so very different than Dish Network or Hughes satellites because they’re a lot closer and therefore they don’t have the latency, sothe internet they put out moves a lot faster
This will have a lot of impact for us in small business because especially if you’re out in the rural areas, we think of our state of Michigan up in the Upper Peninsula, we could have blanket coverage pretty much everywhere. That’s kind of neat.
It’s going to be pretty disruptive for business internet, as well as home internet. But we’re primarily about small business here, and it could be disruptive both in the satellite side for the current satellite providers, and also for the wired side. It’s going to be interesting to see how it shakes out, but here’s the complicating factor:
There’s 12,000 of these satellites. 12,000! That’s what there’s going to be over the next four or five years, or less, that will be launched. There’s already 60 up there, and they launched these SpaceX rockets and then dumped 60 of these things out all at once. And after a while, there’ll be 12,000 on this big grid competing with all the other satellites that are already there; GPS satellites, weather satellites.
Now these run at a lower orbit, which we’ll talk about, but there’s a lot of complication to 12,000 plussatellites in this big grid.
Are they going to be cracking into each other? Or are they going to keep working? What happens when they stop working, and what’s it going to do to our night sky? Those of us astronomers really care about that because, especially in the northwoods up here where we are in Northern-Lower Michigan, we talk about dark skies.
It’s a natural resource for a lot of parts of the country concerning their dark skies.
In any case, let’s get to it and introduce Aurelian Balan, associate professor of physics and astronomy at Delta College.
Aurelian, at the Great Lakes Stargaze you gave a really interesting talk on Starlink, how it’s going to work, especially how the satellite parts of it will work.
First though, do tell us a little bit about your job at Delta and then maybe kind of work that into how you got so knowledgeable about Starlink, for example.
Aurelian Oh, absolutely. So again, pleasure to be on the show.
I’ve worked at Delta since 2009. I’m originally from New York City.t Delta I teach introductory physics and astronomy classes. I’ve been developing the program with my colleague Kevin Dany here, and my other physics colleagues, and we’ve been doing the Star Party that you mentioned since 2009.
I guess my interest in electromagnetism and my research has kind of led me towards being a tech nerd.
Your podcast falls exactly in line with my nerdy interests. I just love being a nerd! I mean, you should see me when I teach second semester physics to my freshmen and they nerd out over wireless charging. They will nerd out over LED efficiency.
So Starlink is a project that SpaceX is working on. And it’s unique because SpaceX both controls the deployment measure, and controls the building of the satellite. They have their own spaceship, and they have their own satellites. So that means they get to be their own distributor and they get to have their own internet business.
What’s happening here is basically SpaceX is becoming a telecommunications company. After all, they have to fund their missions to Mars somehow, right? So their hope is that they can cover the planet with these―not dozens, not hundreds―but thousands of satellites.
Currently, here’s only about 2,000 or 3,000 operational satellites in orbit around earth. SpaceX is talking about putting the 12,000 satellites in orbit just for this one project―and they have approval for this already. This is going to happen by 2025 to 2027.
Ruthy ho did they get approval from ? Is it the US government? Because I feel like it would be a worldwide thing. So who exactly gives approval for this?
Aurelian Great question. I know that the FCC is involved; I know Ajit Pai is involved; I know that there are several councils that they have to go through. I think the main roadblock that they faced at first was the FCC. But as far as I understand it, due to the Outer Space Treaty, that is just public domain up there that can be used as long as it’s used for no harm. It can be used so long as you share information about how you’re using it. So they’re placing things up there at record rates. This project alone will triple the number of satellites―more than triple the number of satellites―that are up there.
Elon Musk himself said that the reflection, as in,―how much light is coming down to the planet earth―is going to be minimal and really will only be seen around sunset or sunrise, dusk and dawn, right around there.
But when they were first launched, you were able to see them brightly and beyond dusk and dawn. They’re actually launched in a train. So just imagine just 60 stars―they just look like stars moving across the sky as little specs―and then as they spread out, they’re going to be that kind of grid pattern that you imagine.
Some are moving North to South, and moving East to West. It’s really a little more complicated than that, but you will see them in the sky. The question is how bright they’ll be. And we don’t quite know, because they can affect things like the coating on the panels, which can influence how much light is being reflected.
They can also change the angle that things are shining on Earth. If they’re careful, they can minimize sky interference, but seriously it’s going to change the night sky. It’s going to look like stars are moving up there.
Tim . My curiosity with this was how did this become a done deal quite so quickly?
You would have though there would have been something like publicity on this, some public comment, that kind of thing; or maybe there was, but nobody knew about it? What’s your feeling on that?
Aurelian I think that this was deliberately done.Admittedly, I don’t know how much went into fuguring it all out in terms of publicity or public comment. I just know that it wasn’t much.
I know that they have the licensing from the FCC to operate on these bands that have that high speed, low latency that the internet requires. And I know that they have the orbital licenses to operate in low earth orbit. These things don’t operate very high up―just a few hundred kilometers up.
So like on the level of something like the International Space Station, as opposed to how high, let’s say, an internet satellite would be―that’s actually something that’s pretty great, right? No one really gets excited about satellite internet―and that’s because there’s a high latency, because these satellites are tens of thousands of kilometers away, or maybe a few thousand kilometers away.
These SpaceX satellites are just a few hundred miles away, or a few hundred kilometers away. And so that’s how they’re claiming this as low latency, high bandwidth stats that they’re putting forth. That’s exciting from a planetary perspective. It should be faster than cable internet.
Tim The problem with satellite internet; it’s always been a latency. And what that means, folks, is the ability to be able to maintain your connection. If you’ve got, let’s say, a cable internet connection, and you go out to weather.com and you just put the address in and click ‘find.’ It pops right up.
With latency, it takes a second for your computer to communicate on the other endThat latency is what makes satellite internet connectivity not so great; because for gaming, for streaming, you get bumps during the process. You don’t have the same kind of speed. Once you establish a connection, it’s not bad, but it’s easy to lose it. That’s latency. There’s a latent period of time before you request the information and the internet provider is able to give it to you.
So the idea here is these satellites will be lower in space, and there’ll be a lot of them. There will be so many more of them that you’ll be able to find one that’s close to you, and that latency will go away. Now the good part of what that means- What Aurelian just said about on the planetary side, and what’s so good about that is, well, our Upper Peninsula of Michigan, is a huge place. There is just no stable internet up there.
We talked about this just a couple of episodes ago about how difficult it is for them to have a clear internet connection up there, especially because of the terrain. All these places where it’s hard to run a cable every building, let’s just say that satellite connectivity will eliminate that need.
Now the other side of it is, as Aurelian was mentioning a second ago, there will be 12,000+ satellites just for this. All crisscrossing, all the time, and we probably don’t need to think about if something gets the least little bit messed up―any number of things could screw up there―and you could have something catastrophic that could really ruin that.
So what’s the security like on that?
Aurelian Oh my gosh. Well, right now you have what are called telescope operators. It’s exactly what it sounds;It’s a guy that gets an alert, and that alert will tell him, “Well, you have a 1 in 10,000 chance of colliding with this Iridium satellite or this Dish satellite,” or something like that.
Then the operator will make a decision on whether or not to adjust the trajectory of the satellite; and adjusting the trajectory of a satellite costs money, right? Because there’s a limited amount of propellant in every satellite, and also you could disrupt service, or something like that. So sometimes operators will choose not to move a satellite based on the odds being low of collision. And as there are more and more satellites in space, especially in a particular orbit―like lower earth orbit, the likelihood of collision will increase. And that’s concerning.
So SpaceX has claimed that a lot of their devices have autonomous collision avoidance, which is both good and bad. I think it’s bad from an astronomy perspective, cause it’s impossible to predict exactly where these things are going to be.
Iif you’re taking pictures, right from the Keck Observatory over in Hawaii―one of the most awesome observatories on the planet―and you’re trying to avoid a satellite passing through your field of view, good luck. You may not be able to predict where that satellite is going to be.
On the other hand, that’s great because you’re not relying on a person to handle the giant traffic jam that’s up there, and we’re seeing the end of those days. With the launch of this, you’re going to see more and more AI collision avoidance.
Ultimately the speed of light―I gotta get back to the physics here―is the limiting factor. Even with perfect hardware and perfect software, you still have to traverse some distance, right? So if you’re trying to ping a satellite 20,000 miles away, that inherently is going to be slower than pinging a satellite 300 miles away. And so that’s the key: the border is the speed of light.
If something is one light second away, it’s going to take one second for you to send a message to it, and one second for that thing to send a message back. The reason you can ping a server in Australia in 0.2 seconds, or whatever, is because the speed of light is fast compared to the diameter or the circumference of earth, right? But now when you start getting tens of thousands of miles away, it’s noticeable.
For instance, let’s get super nerdy here, let’s say one day we get a glorious future, and we colonize Mars. And you end up with a cousin or a grandchild on Mars. Now, Mars and Earth orbit at different speeds around the sun, right?
Let’s say that Mars and Earth are the closest they’re ever going to be together. So Mars is here, Earth is here, and the Sun is there. They’re kind of in a line, at the very closest that Earth and Mars could be, it would still take light 20 minutes to get from earth to Mars. 20 minutes!
That means there are no real-time phone conversations, right? There’s no podcast if somebody’s on Mars. There’s only sending video messages, and then waiting 20 minutes for that person to receive it, and then waiting another 20 minutes for you to get a response back. So that’s a minimum 40 minute return time.
So if you want to ping a Google Mars server, you’re going to hit ‘Enter’ and 40 minutes later with perfect hardware and software, you’re going to get that result.
Tim What do you see as the practical part on the space traffic jam part of it?
With what you know about it, are you comfortable with how that might play out or are you still a little uncomfortable with what they’ve got going on there?
Aurelian I’m pretty uncomfortable for the reason you mentioned before. This is a great thing, you know. This kind of access for the majority of the population of planet Earth is unprecedented and useful. Although one could argue that more internet access for everybody is just going to cause more unhealthy habits for everybody.
There could have been more conversation about the satellites’ impact. It’s strange that the night sky will likely change, and that the number of satellites in orbit will triple, quadruple x10 over in the next 20 years.
So very little conversation was had about that. It seems as though there should be an organization that at least brings this up a little bit more. It just kind of came out of nowhere. It was done quickly, very purposefully. So I’m concerned from that perspective; how quickly things are happening.
It doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen. It just means that there should be better governing laws because if even one mistake happens, most of the junk in space happened because of two instances;
Tthere was a defunct Russian satellite that collided with an Iridium satellite. And that collision created thousands of pieces of debris in an orbit―that’s very dangerous for us. It actually threatened the international space station.
And then there was a Chinese anti-missile test―an empty orbit missile test―back a few years ago that again exploded at an irresponsible altitude that released thousands of pieces, some larger than golf balls, which we’re still tracking, that satellites and the International Space Station itself needs to watch out for. So look, the point is if we mess up and there’s a collision in low earth orbit, that will ruin space for everyone.
We don’t have satellites yet―we will soon―that can go up there and grab the junk and bring it back down. Once that stuff is up there, it’s going to take years to thousands of years to degrade and fall back to earth. You can really mess stuff up. One incident can ruin everything. This is a This why we can’t have nice things kind of thing, you know?
Tim There’s one other part to it: one of the things you mentioned during the talk you did that the Great Lakes Stargaze was that there’s some competing commercial interests in this, too, that are going to be doing the same thing, only different. You want to talk about those a little bit, which will obviously add more satellites and will they all work together?
Ruthy Okay, so that’s a whole other level if there’s other companies that are planning on throwing up satellites.
Aurelian Oh my goodness, yeah, Ruthy. So the company we all love to hate: it’s Amazon, right? Amazon and others that are doing the same. Amazon, I believe, has a license for 3000+ satellites within the next ~7 years. They’re all very short timelines and they’re in the thousands of satellites.
And it makes you wonder: What does Amazon plan on doing? Are they doing the same thing? Are they sending internet connectivity back down?
The planning from Amazon side is less specific. They plan on doing the same thing. I’m not sure if they plan on using the same orbital planes. Again, this is lower earth orbit. Very likely that they have to use lower earth orbit if they’re going to compete with Starlink and SpaceX.
Because otherwise they’ll have a higher latency, and people will choose Starlink rather than Amazon―or whatever they’re going to call their space satellite business. There’s ViaSat. There’s a few others.
If you’re asking if they’re going to work together, they absolutely should work together.
Tim There should probably be one universally governed system, and so that we can all just have free, or very cheap internet and that is subsidized for the planet, and then you could call the internet a right, and not have to worry about this anymore. But that’s probably not what’s going to happen.
Aurelian No, probably isn’t. And there’s so much private investment that’s going into it, too, right now that there’s people who are really making big bets on this, and that starts to really drive things. It’s complex. It’s easy just to say it’s bad. It’s easy to say it’s great. I think there’s a lot of both to it.
And it’s the unknowns that are the bad part.As long as we don’t collide, and as long as they don’t affect the night sky, and as long as we continue to do great things with the web, we’re all set!
That’s easy enough to say.
Tim Is there anything else you’d like to add to this? We sure appreciate your time.
Aurelian I’d say this is great for science, and I think Elon Musk is doing the right thing and developing this.
And I think that we need to get our space treaties in order, and there needs to be an international body that truly can govern and decide exactly what can happen up there. Because basically the laws are right now: do no harm, and also nobody owns it. I mean, those are good starting points.
But if people are testing missiles―like the US, India, China, Russia, if they all tested missiles up there, that would seem to be against the ‘do no harm’ portion of this. So we need better governing in low earth orbit, medium earth orbit, geostationary orbit, all of it. That space is precious, and once it’s messed up, it will likely take up a lifetime to clean up.
Tim All right, my friend. Thanks a million for joining us. We really appreciate it. So gracious to give us your time.
Aurelian You guys are great. Thanks.
Thanks for having me.
Tim Hey, one last thing. Tell us the name of the podcast or the radio show that you do on Thursdays because people can find that online, too, can’t they?
Aurelian Oh, absolutely.
Ruthy You’re on iTunes and SoundCloud, correct?
Aurelian Yes, I am. To my surprise, I didn’t realize it for a little while, but thankfully Delta College is excellent at editing and putting that stuff up.
The name of the show is Our Universe. I host it. My name is Aurelian Balan, and you can find me on SoundCloud, iTunes, and wherever else Delta college has posted it, but definitely those two. I explain a little bit of physics and a little bit of astronomy for a particular topic. Everything from, let’s say, wireless charging, to Starlink, to a nuclear fusion.
Tim Perfect. All right, my friend. Thanks again for your time and what we’ll speak again.
Aurelian Okay. All right guys. I’ll see you later.