For the first time, SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation has satellites for regular operation that exchange data with each other using laser links. Unlike the previous Starlink satellites, the ten new satellites do not orbit the earth from west to east, but in a polar orbit. They are intended to provide broadband internet access to the polar regions.
Previous Starlink satellites always required ground stations in the same region in which the customer is located in order to be able to forward the data. With laser connections between satellites, Starlink can quickly transmit the data to far-flung parts of the world and only then transmit it to the ground. This is particularly advantageous in polar regions, because there it is hardly possible to set up ground stations due to a lack of fiber optic infrastructure. The same applies to open seas.
Dispute over orbit height
The US regulatory authority FCC only approved the ten new satellites on January 8, and they were already on board for the record on January 24 when SpaceX launched 143 satellites into space with a rocket. The ten satellites will be in service at an altitude of 560 kilometers. Previously, the FCC had only allowed Starlink polar orbits at altitudes of 1,100-1,300 kilometers.
Actually, Starlink wants to deploy 348 satellites in the lower sun-synchronous polar orbits. Other (potential) satellite operators have prevented this so far. The competitors Amazon.com (Kuiper), Kepler Communications, Pacific Dataport and Viasat fear interference. You will now have the opportunity to use the ten satellites to detect interference and submit it to the FCC.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced on Twitter that the laser links put in place this week are still in beta. Starting next year, all newly launched Starlink satellites will support a final version of the laser links. In September 2020, Starlink first tried out a Laserlink connection between two prototypes in orbit.