SpaceX’s Starlink Satellite Internet: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

SpaceX SpaceX Falcon 9 preparing for launch.

SpaceX is set to deploy two demonstration satellites as the first part of its planned Starlink satellite Internet today, NASA Spaceflight reported. Although SpaceX hasn’t officially revealed their launch, numerous publications have reported that they are part of today’s Falcon 9 launch payload. The main payload is the PAZ satellite, but the Starlink may be the most innovative part of the launch. Here’s everything you need to know about SpaceX’s Starlink satellite Internet.

1. Starlink is the Current Name for SpaceX’s Ambitious Plan to Provide High-Speed Internet to the Entire World

GettyThe SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches from the Space Launch Complex 4 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, California on December 22, 2017.

Starlink is an ambitious plan by SpaceX to launch up to 12,000 satellites into space and create a high-speed, global Internet for the entire world. Starlink is the current name for this plan, trademarked by SpaceX in late August 2017. The entire project could be up and running by 2024, if the current timeline holds.

SpaceX filed two trademarks on the same day in August 2017, revealing more information about the Internet plans. One filing focused on satellite communications and research, and the other focused on hardware, Florida Today reported. The filings described services that would include satellite communication and transmission, wireless broadband, and data/voice/video transmission. The filings also mentioned retrieving information, not just relaying communication.

The filings describe the satellites in this way: “Providing access to electronic databases and online information for use in retrieving satellite data, recordings, and measurements; satellite photography services” and “Scientific and technological services, namely, research, analysis, and monitoring of data captured via remote sensors and satellites; remote sensing services, namely, aerial surveying through the use of satellites.” The satellites were listed as being both commercial and scientific in nature.

This could be the most ambitious satellite Internet plan yet, as multiple companies race to be the first to deploy a fully functioning worldwide Internet. SpaceX’s plan would allow users to access the Internet through a laptop-sized receiver, Florida Today reported.

Although several companies are seeking to create global satellite Internet, Facebook and SpaceX have been described as being in a “space race” just for two. Facebook’s plan, in contrast, takes place in three phases: Project Aquila (using solar-powered drones to beam the Internet to specified areas), Terragraph (supplying Internet connections to dense urban areas), and tether-tenna (provide temporary Internet during emergencies via a helicopter drone that can connect to a fiber line.)

2. Starlink Is Projected To Be Fast Enough to Compete Head-On with Wired Broadband

GettyThe SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches from the Space Launch Complex 4 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, California on December 22, 2017.

Starlink isn’t just providing satellite Internet to the world. It would be providing top quality, high-speed satellite Internet to the world at speeds that rival wired broadband. This is spelled out in an application to the FCC that SpaceX submitted in March 2017 to get permission deploy the satellite system. You can read the application in full here. According to the application, the satellite Internet will enable “…the provision of high speed, high bandwidth, low latency broadband services that are truly competitive with terrestrial alternatives.”

The application goes on to read: “As with the proposed Ka/Ku-band system, SpaceX anticipates that the first 800 LEO satellites deployed will enable the system to provide initial U.S. and international coverage for broadband services. Deployment of the remainder of that constellation will complete coverage and add capacity around the world. The VLEO Constellation will add enhanced capacity where demand may be greatest, and satellite enhancements derived from lower power demand and more compact spot size will add user value without increasing system costs. Once fully optimized through deployment of all satellites, the system would be able to provide high bandwidth, low latency broadband services.”

So it appears that the plan is to launch an initial 800 of 12,000 satellites to provide a more basic coverage that will then be enhanced and strengthened.

Interestingly, SpaceX’s plan also involves avoiding creating additional “space junk” in orbit. The plan reads: “Here, SpaceX will employ advanced spacesituational awareness techniques and other methods to mitigate the potential creation of additional orbital debris. To this end, SpaceX will implement an operations plan for the orderly de-orbit of satellites nearing the end of their useful lives (roughly five to seven years) at a rate far faster than is required under international standards.”

3. Elon Musk Announced This Project More Than Three Years Ago in November 2014

GettyElon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, speaks during the International Space Station Research and Development Conference at the Omni Shoreham Hotel July 19, 2017.

This project has been planned by Elon Musk for more than three years now. So although it may feel like it’s happening out of nowhere, it’s actually been planned for quite a while. In November 2014, he confirmed that SpaceX was working on creating advanced satellites to deploy low-cost Internet access  around the world.

It was originally reported that SpaceX was planning a fleet of 700 satellites, but we now know that this was just the initial part of the plan. The goal is 12,000 satellites, and the hope is that the global Internet will help fund SpaceX’s mission to Mars.

4. Starlink Needs More Government Approval To Move Forward, and FCC Chair Ajit Pai Has Already Supported the Plan

GettySpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches from pad 39A on May 1, 2017 in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

SpaceX has approval to turn on its first two test satellites today, but it still needs approval from the FCC for the rest of the network. Just a few days ago, FCC Chair Ajit Pai urged his colleagues to join him in supporting SpaceX’s plan. His full statement reads:

“To bridge America’s digital divide, we’ll have to use innovative technologies. SpaceX’s application—along with those of other satellite companies seeking licenses or access to the U.S. market for non-geostationary satellite orbit systems—involves one such innovation. Satellite technology can help reach Americans who live in rural or hard-to-serve places where fiber optic cables and cell towers do not reach. And it can offer more competition where terrestrial Internet access is already available.”
“Following careful review of this application by our International Bureau’s excellent satellite engineering experts, I have asked my colleagues to join me in supporting this application and moving to unleash the power of satellite constellations to provide high-speed Internet to rural Americans. If adopted, it would be the first approval given to an American-based company to provide broadband services using a new generation of low-Earth orbit satellite technologies.

Meanwhile, competitors such as OneWeb have criticized SpaceX’s FCC application, claiming it didn’t account for safety risks. But SpaceX countered that the plan met all safety requirements and SpaceX’s system would be separated by at least 50 km from OneWeb’s.

It’s unclear when the FCC will vote on SpaceX’s application. CNET reported that internal action could happen at any time, and if so the results would be posted on the FCC’s website after. The other option would be a public meeting that might take place next month. The application isn’t listed in the FCC’s agenda for February 22. Once receiving the FCC’s approval, SpaceX will still need the approval of the International Telecommunications Union.

You can read SpaceX’s FCC filings here.

5. Two Starlink Test Satellites Will Launch Today, Along with a Third, Larger Satellite from the Spanish Government

GettyA SpaceX rocket sits on launch pad 39A as it is prepared for the NROL-76 launch on April 29, 2017 in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch today will carry the first two demonstration satellites for the Starlink satellite internet. These are called the MicroSat-2a and 2b, which carry Ku-band payloads, NASA Spaceflight reported. The project will ultimately use Ka- and Ku-band satellites that orbit at an altitude of 1,200 km (750 miles), and V-band satellites that orbit lower at 210 miles (340 km.) Starlink could be fully operational by 2024, including 4,425 higher orbit satellites and 7,518 lower orbit satellites. You can read SpaceX’s FCC filing for today’s launch here.

The launch’s primary payload is the PAZ satellite. The Hisdesat’s PAZ satellite has advanced radar that can operate in numerous modes, choosing multiple image configurations, SpaceX shared in a press kit. It’s designed for a mission life of five-and-a-half years, and will be able to generate images with up to 25 cm resolution day and night, regardless of meteorological conditions. It will orbit the Earth 15 times a day from an altitude of 514 kilometers, moving at a velocity of seven kilometers per second. PAZ has an Automatic Identification System that combines ship AIS signals and Synthetic Aperture Radar imagery.

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