Tuesday, August 15, 2017

SpaceX satellite Internet project status update

If all goes according to plan, SpaceX will be offering global Internet connectivity by 2024.

SpaceX orbital path schematic, source
I've been following the efforts of SpaceX and OneWeb to become global Internet service providers using constellations of low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites for some time. Launch times are getting close, so I'm posting a status update on SpaceX's project. (I'll do the same for OneWeb in a subsequent post).

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing titled “Investing in America’s Broadband Infrastructure: Exploring Ways to Reduce Barriers to Deployment” on May 3, 2017, and one of the expert witnesses was Patricia Cooper, SpaceX Vice President, Satellite Government Affairs.

She began her oral testimony with a description of SpaceX and its capability and went on to outline the disparities in broadband availability and quality and the domestic and global broadband market opportunities.

Next she presented their two-stage plan. The first, LEO, satellite constellation will consist of 4,425 satellites operating in 83 orbital planes at altitudes ranging from 1,110 to 1,325 km. They plan to launch a prototype satellite before the end of this year and a second one during the early months of 2018. They will start launching operational satellites in 2019, will begin offering commercial service in the 2020-21 time frame and will complete the first constellation by 2024.

The LEO satellites launched in the first phase of the project will enable SpaceX to bring the Internet to all underserved and rural areas of the Earth. If all goes according to plan, SpaceX will be offering global Internet connectivity by 2024. These satellites may also have an advantage over terrestrial networks for long-range backhaul links since they will require fewer router hops, as shown in the following illustration comparing a terrestrial route (14 hops) with a satellite route (5 hops) between Los Angeles and a University in Punta Arenas, Chile (The figure is drawn to scale).

Ms. Cooper also said they had filed for authority to launch a second constellation of 7,500 satellites operating closer to the Earth -- in very low Earth orbit (VLEO). A 2016 patent by Mark Krebs, then at Google, now at SpaceX, describes the relationship between the two constellations.

I don't have dates for the second constellation, but the satellite altitudes will range from 335.9 to 345.6 km. (The International Space Station orbits at 400 km). These satellites will be able to provide high-speed, low-latency connectivity because of their low-altitude orbits. Coverage of the two constellations will overlap, allowing for dynamic handoffs between them when desirable. When this second constellation is complete, SpaceX might be able to compete with terrestrial networks in densely populated urban areas.

These VLEO satellites might also be used for Earth imaging and sensing applications and a bullish article by Gavin Sheriden suggests they may also connect all Tesla cars and Tesla solar roofs.

Very low Earth orbit (VLEO) satellites have smaller footprints,
but are faster and have lower latency times than higher
altitude satellites. Image Source

Ms. Cooper concluded her testimony with a discussion of administrative barriers they were encountering and listed six specific policy recommendation. You can see her full written testimony here. The entire hearing is shown below and Ms. Cooper's testimony begins at 13:54.

I will follow this post with a similar update on OneWeb, SpaceX's formidable competitor in the race to become a global Internet service provider using satellites.

Global connectivity is a rosy prospect, but we must ask one more question. Success by either or both of these companies could, like the shift from dial-up to broadband, disrupt the Internet service industry. As of July/August, 1997, there were 4,009 ISPs in North America and today few people in the United States have more than two ISP choices. Might we end up with only one or two global Internet service providers and, if so, what sort of regulation, if any, would be beneficial?

Update 9/21/2017

Evidently SpaceX will name their satellite Internet service Starlink. They applied to trademark the name last month and described the service as follows:

Update 9/27/2017

The SpaceX Internet service project hit a roadblock yesterday when the FCC voted to delay it due to fear of radio interference with OneWeb and Telesat satellites. Like SpaceX, OneWeb is planning to provide Internet service with a constellation of low-Earth orbiting satellites and they and Telesat have reserved International Telecommunication Union (ITU) priority rights to spectrum SpaceX plans to use.

OneWeb technique to avoid inference
with geostationary satellites (source)
ITU priority does not mean they have exclusive use of their frequencies and it is not a permanent designation, but SpaceX will have to work out a spectrum-sharing scheme that OneWeb and Telesat agree to. OneWeb has already patented a technique they say will avoid interference with Telesat's geostationary satellites, which orbit at much higher altitudes around the equator.

I am not an expert in such matters, but it seems that we are at the start of a transition from exclusive spectrum rights to an era of unlicensed spectrum (like WiFi) and spectrum sharing. This fundamental shift will enable efficient use of spectrum (on Earth and in space). It is reminiscent of the shift from circuit-switching to packet-switching and will take years to complete.

I understand OneWeb's desire to delay the SpaceX project for business reasons, but they seem to be on the wrong side of the technology trend in this case and delaying SpaceX is not in the best interest of society.

For more on this ruling and its implications, click here.

Update 9/29/2017

Elon Musk gave a terrific talk on SpaceX's plan to go to Mars yesterday. He plans to send two 150-ton cargo loads to Mars in 2022 and send four -- two with cargo and two with people -- in 2024. He focused on technology advances that will enable those Mars trips, going to the Moon and intercity travel on Earth. He did not mention the satellite-Internet project, but those technology advances will also cut the cost of Internet satellite launches.

Reliable reusability makes BFR launches cheaper than others.
The key to reducing cost is their shift to a new rocket, called, for now, the Big F***ing Rocket or BFR. The BFR will carry a 150-ton payload (10 times that of their current Falcon 9) and have an extra landing-guidance engine for reliable reusability. (They have now successfully landed 16 straight boosters with only one engine). As shown here, marginal cost per BFR launch will be the lowest of all SpaceX rockets, which are cheaper than any others.

Musk said they would soon begin soft-landing and reusing second stage rockets as well as boosters and he suggested that the BFR and its reusable second stage may be able to retrieve spent satellites in the future.

I don't know how many Internet satellites will fit in a BFR 150-ton payload module, but the BFR may give SpaceX a cost advantage over competitors OneWeb and Boeing. (Note that Boeing is also planning a Mars mission, so they may have something novel up their sleeve).

For more on the BFR and it's role in the satellite Internet project see this post.

You can see a number of the slides from Musk's talk here and I heartily recommend watching the talk:

Update 10/17/2017

SpaceX has applied for FCC approval to test satellite communication using radios on two buildings in Redmond Washington. The ground station equipment will be mounted on the SpaceX satellite research and development building shown here and the communications equipment that will eventually be in test satellites will be on top of a tall building about 6 km away. You can read more on the application and test on Reddit.

SpaceX satellite research and development building

Update 10/28/2017

Patricia Cooper testifying
SpaceX vice president of satellite government affairs Patricia Cooper testified before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on "The Commercial Satellite Industry: What’s Up and What’s on the Horizon."

She said they would launch two prototype satellites within the next few months and would begin operation in 2019. Launching the full 4,425 LEO satellite constellation will take about five years and commercial service will begin with 800 satellites in the 2020-1 time frame. At that time, they will cover the entire US. (OneWeb will also cover the US first for political reasons and because we have a high-margin Internet market due to our GDP and lack of terrestrial ISP competition).

Ms. Cooper said their emphasis was on building constellation capacity by increasing the throughput of each satellite and increasing the number of satellites in orbit as quickly as possible. When the constellation is fully deployed, they will have "over 20 satellites in view from any spot in the US." She also said that if operators cannot agree on techniques to share spectrum, the FCC (and ITU) will divide and allocate fixed spectrum blocks and no one wants that so they are motivated to rapidly develop spectrum-sharing techniques.

Ms. Cooper did not give a timeline for the second constellation of 7,500 VLEO satellites mentioned above, but it sounds like they expect this constellation to enable them to eventually compete in urban areas and it will be interesting to see how well they can compete with terrestrial ISPs at that time.

You can read her written testimony describing their plans, expected benefits and policy recommendations here or watch her oral testimony, beginning 45:50 of the archived video of the hearing. Representatives of OneWeb, Intelsat and ViaSat also testified, but, Boeing was noticeably absent. Ms. Cooper and the others answered questions after their introductory oral testimony.

Update 12/8/2017

SpaceX has postponed the first launch of their new Falcon Heavy booster until early next January. (It has been delayed several times). The payload will be a Tesla Roadster, which hopefully will be inserted into orbit around Mars:

Musk has a sense of humor (the payload of their first Dragon booster flight was a giant wheel of cheese) but this is also a publicity stunt with symbolic value. If the flight is a success, it will be widely publicized and serve as near-permanent marker of the beginning of our transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. As a final touch, the car radio will be playing David Bowie's song, Space Oddity.

The Falcon Heavy will also be available for launches of Internet service satellites.

Update 12/20/2017

SpaceX has released photos of the first Falcon Heavy rocket. It is expected to launch next month, putting a Tesla Roadster in solar orbit. When asked why he wanted to put the car in orbit, Musk said he loves "the thought of a car drifting apparently endlessly through space and perhaps being discovered by an alien race millions of years in the future," and so do I. That reply is even cooler than Mallory saying he climbed Mount Everest "because it's there."

They hope to retrieve and reuse the three booster rockets.

Update 1/8/2018

The SpaceX Zuma launch was a success. You can see a video of the launch here, but it ends just after the recovery of the booster because the purpose of the mission is secret. The recovery footage, near the end of the video, shows the controlled descent of the booster -- X marks the spot:

SpaceX has made booster recovery routine. Their next launch will the first for the new Falcon

(It has been rumored that the Zuma mission failed, but SpaceX will not comment because the mission was classified).

Update 1/23/2018

It looks like SpaceX will launch it's two Internet-service test satellites, Microsat-2a and 2b, on February 10th. They will be "ridesharing" with Paz, a Spanish Earth-observation satellite. Here is summary of what is known (and unknown) about the launch plan:

The satellites will measure 1.1m x 0.7m x 0.7m and, with their two 2x8 meter solar panels, will each have a mass of approximately 400kg. Satellite geeks can read the purpose of the test, test procedures and the specifications of the satellites, radios, and orbits here.

This will be a significant milestone in the race with OneWeb and others -- let's hope all goes well on February 10th.

Update 1/30/2018


I blew it -- I said it was Mars orbit because, as you see above, Elon Musk tweeted that the "destination is Mars orbit," but he misspoke.

He later corrected himself, as outlined in this post.

It turns out to be a solar orbit -- "an orbit around the Sun that takes it as close to the Sun as Earth and as far out as Mars".

Update 2/6/2018

The Falcon Heavy launch was a success! The roadster is on the way to orbit and the three side booster rockets were recovered. The center booster ran out of propellant and crashed into the ocean while trying to land on a drone ship. This was not a great loss since it was an older version 4 Falcon rocket and they had not planned to re-use it. The side rockets will also be retired since SpaceX only plans to fly version 5 Falcons in the future.

The Falcon heavy can lift a payload of 63,800 kilograms to low-Earth orbit and the Starlink Internet satellites weigh 386 kilograms. If they fit perfectly, a launch could insert about 160 satellites in orbit. The actual number will clearly be less than 160, but since I don't know about the geometric constraints and solar panel sizes, I can't estimate it reliably.

Regardless, the Falcon Heavy will play a stratgeic role in launching the constellation. Fewer launches will be needed, which will speed deployment and, if they are able to continue re-using boosters, launch cost per satellite will be reduced. (The two side boosters used in this launch had been flown previously).

Here are some launch photos:

Ready to go


Three bosters burning

View of the three boosters from onboard

Side boosters descending

Synchronized landing

They did it!

The roadster and dummy in orbit -- for a billion years

Update 12/14/2018

MicroSat 1a and 1b, identical test satellites for SpaceX's Starlink constellation, will launch Feb 17 at 6:17 Pacific time. The Starlink test satellites will be "ridesharing" on the launch of Paz, a Spanish Earth observation satellite. Ridesharing with commercial launches lowers SpaceX's cost relative to competitors.

Update 2/17/2018

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai gave SpaceX a Valentine day present when he proposed that the FCC grant SpaceX's request to offer its Starlink LEO satellite Internet service in the US and globally. A formal vote by the Commission may be needed, but that would be a mere formality given Pai's approval.

, OneWeb and Space Norway had previously been granted permission to offer Internet service using LEO satellites. I've been following OneWeb and Telesat, but am not familiar with Space Norway's plans. They've proposed using only two satellites and it seems they may be focusing on serving the northern seas.