SpaceX to Launch a "Constellation" of Satellites

SpaceX, the brainchild of Tesla founder Elon Musk, recently secured permission from the Federal Communications Commission to provide global satellite broadband services.  This approval, the first of its kind, involves a fleet of 4,425 low earth satellites that utilize new technologies, far more than the 1,419 active satellites than are orbiting the Earth today.  The system is intended to bring high speed broadband service to residential, commercial, institutional, governmental, and educational users worldwide, and even stands to get internet services into remote areas of the world.

Typical broadband satellites weigh in at several tons and can be as large as a bus, but these satellites are different.  SpaceX's satellites are estimated to weigh about 850lbs and be roughly the size of a small car.  They'll orbit the Earth at an altitude of 715-790 miles.  With the quantity anticipated to be sent up, the satellites can cover an area of about 1,300 miles wide (or roughly the distance between Maine to the Florida panhandle).

To start, SpaceX intends to send 1,600 satellites into space and then follow them up with a second phase of 2,825 satellites placed in four shells at different altitudes.  Services will be limited at first, but once all satellites are in place the system can support high speed (1 Gbps per user) internet globally.  Currently, the average speed of internet speed is 5.1 Mbps, about 200 times slower than SpaceX's offering, which highlights how remarkable the satellite system could be.

SpaceX's filing also includes the following specifications, as noted in a Business Insider article on the topic:

  • High capacity: Each satellite in the SpaceX System provides aggregate downlink capacity to users ranging from 17 to 23 Gbps, depending on the gain of the user terminal involved. Assuming an average of 20 Gbps, the 1600 satellites in the Initial Deployment would have a total aggregate capacity of 32 Tbps. SpaceX will periodically improve the satellites over the course of the multi-year deployment of the system, which may further increase capacity.
  • High adaptability: The system leverages phased array technology to dynamically steer a large pool of beams to focus capacity where it is needed. Optical inter-satellite links permit flexible routing of traffic on-orbit. Further, the constellation ensures that frequencies can be reused effectively across different satellites to enhance the flexibility and capacity and robustness of the overall system.
  • Broadband services: The system will be able to provide broadband service at speeds of up to 1 Gbps per end user. The system's use of low-Earth orbits will allow it to target latencies of approximately 25-35 ms.
  • Worldwide coverage: With deployment of the first 800 satellites, the system will be able to provide U.S. and international broadband connectivity; when fully deployed, the system will add capacity and availability at the equator and poles for truly global coverage.
  • Low cost: SpaceX is designing the overall system from the ground up with cost- effectiveness and reliability in mind, from the design and manufacturing of the space and ground-based elements, to the launch and deployment of the system using SpaceX launch services, development of the user terminals, and end-user subscription rates.
  • Ease of use: SpaceX's phased-array user antenna design will allow for a low-profile user terminal that is easy to mount and operate on walls or roofs.
  • The satellites will last between 5 years and 7 years and decay within a year after that.

There are other players in the high speed broadband market too - Google parent company Alphabet is currently working on a broadband system utilizing satellites, balloons, and drones, though it doesn't have the investment that SpaceX has received.

This article was based on a March 29, 2018 Reuters article and a November 16, 2016 Business Insider article by Dave Mosher

Date: 
March 30, 2018

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