Already confirmed by Google and Apple for upcoming versions of Android and iOS, support for 5G satellite internet should work with existing phones as well, provided by a new family of satellites that US company SpaceX will begin adding to the Starlink constellation as early as this month.
Unlike satellite internet connections made using dedicated Starlink antennas, the 5G satellite internet option will operate as an emergency service, activated only when there is no coverage on the mobile operator’s terrestrial network. Similar to roaming connections, the service will only be available from phone operators working with SpaceX.
Compared to the micro-satellites that make up the Starlink constellation, the BlueWalker 3 prototype is a colossus with a 64m² footprint, comparable to the living space of a three-bedroom apartment block. It is made up of up to 100 interconnected modules and once in orbit is rolled out like a large carpet. Each module has a back side covered with photovoltaic cells, while the front side houses Earth-facing antennas, forming coverage ‘cells’ that can be targeted to specific geographical areas of interest.
Like the other Starlink satellites, the BlueWalker prototype and final versions of the 5G satellites, called Bluebirds, will be placed in low Earth orbits (between 220 and 340 km). The move is needed to minimise the distance users have to connect to their phones. But there’s also a potential problem, as the highly reflective satellites, which are deployed like large mirrors, will become some of the brightest objects in the sky, visible to the naked eye as they cross the sky every 90 minutes.
Given the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Bluebird satellites that will be added to the Starlink constellation (already made up of thousands of other micro-satellites), there are growing concerns that they will pollute the sky with light and drastically disrupt ground-based astronomical observations.