Elon Musk and his company SpaceX continue to push the boundaries of what was previously thought possible. His plan to add new layers to an entire industry has been put into motion. Musk’s idea to provide the entire world with a speedy broadband Internet connection will, by the looks of it, materialize sooner rather than later.
On Wednesday night, Musk plans to get his SpaceX Falcon 9 off the ground and into space, launching the first batch of satellites whose purpose will be to establish the company’s Starlink broadband network.
Last year, SpaceX sent prototype satellites into orbit, which was a test that came back with positive results. Now, the first satellites with ‘production design’ will leave our planet. Inside the SpaceX Falcon 9, they’ve placed 60 satellites which will be ready for launch on Wednesday night from Florida (Cape Canaveral Air Force Station).
Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX COO, stated that these 60 satellites would be used as a demonstration, and they would be a test setup for many more satellites they plan to send into space — forming a constellation which, per their plans, will ultimately contain thousands of flying data links that will provide Internet access across the planet.
Musk, however, warns against overly optimistic expectations. In his own words, they are ready for much of the mission to go wrong. Furthermore, the company’s founder, CEO, and CTO also stated that at least six more launches (with each of them consisting of 60 satellites) would be necessary before the Starlink will be able to offer minor coverage.
Satellite Internet Today
The ultimate goal of Musk and SpaceX is to have 12,000 satellites working on delivering commercial satellite Internet — something which represents an entirely new approach to how satellite Internet works.
If we compare with other companies providing this service (such as HughesNet and Viasat), they use only a smattering of satellites in geostationary orbit, meaning that they’re over 22,000 miles above the ground. Data travels back and forth between these satellites and satellite dishes (directly to customers or ground stations). As a result, thousands of customers have Internet at their homes, with people in rural areas usually having to use this service, as other options are lacking.
With 22,000 miles to cover in a single direction, this often results in high levels of latency, which many users of high-demanding apps have experienced. Consequently, real-time video calls (Skype, for example), live-streaming, and online gaming all have difficulties due to delay and lag.
The whole idea of Starlink is to achieve connection with satellites placed much closer to the ground, immensely affecting data travel time and, therefore, cutting down the lag. However, to accomplish any great idea, there are obstacles along the way. Since the satellites won’t be as far away from Earth, their individual coverage will be restricted to smaller areas — hence why SpaceX has developed a plan to create a constellation of 12,000 satellites in order to cover the whole world. The company has received a green light for deploying over 1500 satellites at just 340 miles above the ground (which Federal Communications Commission agreed to with a view to reducing space junk).
The first 800 satellites will be enough to provide coverage of the United States, while the remainder will be used for the rest of the world.
Musk’s ambitions don’t stop there. SpaceX plans to add another 7500 satellites on top. Why? They will be there to provide additional capacity whenever and wherever needed. With these satellites waiting to jump in and help out, Starlink will enable high bandwidth, high speed, low latency broadband services which will offer the same quality of service as its terrestrial competition.
When Can We Expect It?
SpaceX is working on developing new cutting-edge technology to accompany these satellites and optimize their use (for example, they intend to use lasers to allow communication and coordination between the satellites). Markus Knapek, a representative of a laser communications company Mynaric, says Starlink ‘fired the starting pistol’ when it comes to laser communications in space. But SpaceX is not the only one who has such plans. Globalstar and Iridium have used a constellation of satellites for years (although for voice services), while OneWeb, SpaceX’s competition, has also received approval to make a several-hundred-strong satellite constellation.
As SpaceX begins working on Starlink, they are still far from reaching their customers. Musk claims that full service probably won’t be able for use until the middle of the next decade.