SpaceX's Starlink Uses Lasers To Connect Antarctica To The Internet


Situated at the planet's southernmost continent, Antarctica is the fifth-largest continent, being about 40% larger than Europe.

But despite its size, it's least-populated continent, thanks to its harsh weather that can go down to as low as −89.2 °C. Beyond that, its remote location makes communication pretty much difficult there.

SpaceX, the American spacecraft manufacturer, launcher, and a satellite communications corporation headquartered in Hawthorne, California, is changing that.

The company does it by bringing its Starlink communications satellites to the continent, using lasers.

Each Starlink satellite has several laser link terminals that allow the constellation to create a mesh network in space and reach even the remotest users.
Each Starlink V1.5 satellite has several laser link terminals that allow the constellation to create a mesh network in space and reach even the remotest users. (Credit: SpaceX)

The company first said that Starlink had reached Antarctica as part of the National Science Foundation (NSF) experiment in September 2022, marking its satellite internet connectivity to all continents on Earth.

This time, the service is officially functional and working.

SpaceX made this happen, by bringing about 5% of the 3,400 working Starlink satellites currently in orbit to cover Antarctica.

Despite 181 Starlink satellites are operational in polar regions, the coverage is still not stable.

This is because Antarctica has no ground stations.

To connect to the internet, Starlink's polar satellites have to rely on optical interlinks, or lasers, to connect Antarctic users with ground stations situated thousands of kilometers away.

The closest ground stations from Antarctica are located in South America, New Zealand, and Australia.

In initial tests, SpaceX managed to connect users at McMurdo Station through a terminal located in the remote research station.

McMurdo Station houses anywhere from 100 to 1,000 scientists and staff at a given time

After the success tests, SpaceX expands the service to allow scientists at field sites to also receive internet connections. SpaceX is also bringing internet connection to more remote campsites in Antarctica.

Here, Starlink is helping a Center for Oldest Ice Exploration (COLDEX) field experiment to discover the oldest ice on Earth.

This would allow scientists to look back in time through information preserved in the ice. COLDEX first began testing Starlink in the field in December 2022.

Funded by the NSF, the government agency is helping test the limits of SpaceX network connectivity and ways in which such technology could benefit scientists who are pursuing research in extremely remote regions.

For SpaceX, the NSF also helps Starlink tweak its satellites to maximize benefits.

For instance, NSF once urged SpaceX to reduce the satellite's brightness in order to limit their impact on astronomy.

"We’ve tested Starlink in a [Center for Oldest Ice Exploration] Antarctic field camp & [the National Science Foundation] is now testing at McMurdo Station (pop. 800+)!" wrote climatologist Peter Neff on Twitter.

"Exciting to see how this & other modes of high-speed connectivity can advance our communication & might alter how we do science on the ice!"

Starlink’s success in Antarctica is a big milestone for SpaceX as Elon Musk continues to develop a full-fledged constellation of Starlink satellites, in addition to bringing broadband internet to all seven continents.