Oil and gas exploration: the significance of Starlink constellation of satellites

Oil and gas exploration - data  exchange
Oil and gas exploration - data  exchange

Starlink, the constellation of satellites owned by SpaceX headed by the legendary visionary, Elon Musk, appears to be helping with data access beyond the domain of the initial audience - remote locations and the regions with no access to the internet services.

The original plan of Mr Musk was making fast broadband internet available for residential and commercial customers as the primary users, as he understood the need of such services, as streaming and bandwidth-heavy games indicated an exponential growth.

There are, however, other strata of the business world showing a keen interest in the fast internet provided by Starlink at secondary level too; oil and gas industry stands out clearly to benefit from Starlink.

Not only does Starlink provide the industry with faster internet, but also makes it feasible with significantly low latency, compared with a traditional geostationary satellite: the latency of them are 20 ms and 600 ms respectively.

A traditional geostationary satellite has to be put into an orbit at an altitude of just over 35700 km in order to make them 'stationary' above the Earth in such a way that those who deploy it can serve a particular geographical region of the world.

The following fully-interactive simulation helps you understand the correlation between the latency and altitude of satellites - just click the buttons to begin and end.

Since such a satellite must revolve at the speed of the Earth's rotation around its own axis - with the time period being 24 hours - the altitude of a satellite being that high is inevitable. 

The altitude can be calculated by the use of laws of physics: they are Newton's Law of Gravitation and Kepler's Laws. It is as follows:

The centripetal force required by a geostationary satellite to stay in orbit comes from the gravitational attraction between the satellite and the Earth.

mrω² = GMm/r² | m = mass of satellite | M = mass of Earth | r = distance between the centre of Earth and satellite | G = gravitational constant |ω = angular speed of satellite
ω² = GM/r3 → 1)
If the Time period is T,
T = 2π/ω
ω = 2π/T
From 1),
4π²/T² = GM/r3
r3 = T²GM/4π²
r = (T²GM/4π²)1/3
T = 24 hours | G = 6.67x10-12 | M = 5.9x1024
r ≈ 42,164 km
Since the radius of the Earth is close to 6371km
The altitude = 42164 - 6371 = 35,793 km

Geostationary Satellite
Geostationary Satellite: simulation by Vivax Solutions

Since traditional satellites are orbiting at such an altitude, the it is inevitable that the latency - time taken by an electromagnetic wave to make a round trip with data - is fairly high. 

As for Starlink, the satellites are orbiting at an altitude of 550 km over the Earth. The relatively small altitude makes the data transfer so much quicker to an extent that the latency can be brought down to a figure that can range from 20 ms to 42 ms, as orbits never are perfect circles.

As far as the oil and gas industry is concerned, connecting with remote sites has always been a major issue to be addressed. More often than not, these locations pose numerous challenges and slow internet connectivity just exacerbates the existing difficulties. 

In these circumstances, high speed, low latency broadband internet provided by SpaceX, makes the connectivity really easy while enabling real-time data transmission along with communication as well as monitoring the equipment and operations that is crucial in the game of exploration of fossil fuels.

When oil companies are on a mission of exploration of oil and gas in remote, hostile areas, they have to rely on large amount of data that reflects the activities of both exploration and production. The critical information includes seismic data, weather data, drilling logs, to name but a few.

New oil and gas projects

Not only does the flow of real time data enhance the speed of decision making, but also the efficiency of operations that in turn can keep costs to a minimum.

In addition, the faster internet makes things really easy for the operators in unpredictable emergencies: this is really significant in the regions where seismic activities such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are high; real-time data from the regions where periodic hurricanes and typhoons rife is equally significant.

Starlink satellites can easily address this issue, as the constellation already has thousands of satellites covering the entire planet. That means the response time in the event of emergencies can be drastically cut while minimizing the dangers to life.

Since traditional oil and gas reserves are on permanent decline, the industry has been compelled to look for them in areas that previously have not been subjected to rigorous exploration. 

Remote areas in Alaska and Arctic regions, for instance, have been attracting the attention of the industry in this regard. The global coverage of Starlink is going to come to industry's rescue when it makes concerted efforts to reach its goals.

Moreover, with the satellite-based internet provided by Starlink, the oil and gas industry does not have to spend a lot of money on infrastructure in remote locations - offshore or onshore. 

For a small facility, for instance, data can be exchanged by a single dish with physical dimensions, 51cm X 34cm X 54cm, instead of elaborate costly infrastructure. 

Last but not least, at a time when the oil and gas industry is under scrutiny on multiple environmental fronts as never before, data from the satellite-based internet can provide it with at least a partial solution to minimize the risk of being demonized; the industry can provide the interested parties with real time data on wildlife, water quality and air quality to  prove that the former is serious about mitigating the environmental impact.


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