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SpaceX Satellite Internet Project Status Update

Larry Press

SpaceX orbital path schematic, sourceIf all goes according to plan, SpaceX will be offering global Internet connectivity by 2024.

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 [PDF] 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 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 constallations will overlap, allowing for dynamic handoffs between them when desireable. 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 Sep 21, 2017:

Evidently SpaceX will name their satellite Internet service Starlink. They applied to trademark the name last month and decribed the service as such.

Update Sep 27, 2017:

OneWeb technique to avoid interference with geostationary satellitesThe 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.

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 satelites, 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 Sep 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).

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

Update Oct 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 building and the communications equipment that will eventually be in test satellites will be on top of a tall building about 6 km away.

Update Nov 3, 2017:

Patricia Cooper testifyingSpaceX 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 Dec 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 Dec 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 Jan 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.

SpaceX has made booster recovery routine. Their next launch will the first for the new Falcon Heavy, which will, if all goes well, put Elon Musk's roadster in orbit. It will also be available for launches of SpaceX Starlink Internet-service satellites, when they begin next year.

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

Update Jan 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. See the summary of what is known (and unknown) about the launch plan here.

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 Jan 30, 2018:

Correction: 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 Feb 6, 2018:

The Falcon Heavy launch was a success! The roadster is on the way to orbit and the three booster rockets were recovered — the side boosters on Earth and the center booster on a drone ship.

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).

Update Feb 14, 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 it's 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.

Telesat, 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.

Update Feb 22, 2018:

On October 29, 1969, UCLA student Charles Kline sent the first test message over the ARPANET. He was trying to log in to a computer at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), but the system crashed after he had typed only the first two letters of the word LOGIN. (Terminals were typically upper case only in those days).

By December, the ARPANET had expanded to 4 nodes — one at SRI and three at universities, as shown in this sketch which was made at that time.

Early this morning, SpaceX launched the first two test satellites for their planned Starlink Internet-service. Will we look back on February 22, 2018, as the day we took the first step toward a truly global Internet?

Update Feb 22, 2018:

SpaceX succeeded in launching two Starlink test satellites today, but the subsequent attempt to catch and reuse the fairing (nose-cone) failed. The plan was to have the fairing fire small retro-rocket to slow it as it fell back to Earth then catch it in a large net attached to a ship called "Mr. Steven."

This attempt failed, but, as with booster recovery, they will learn from this and any future failures and eventually succeed in recovering fairings, which cost over five million dollars. (SpaceX failed at many attempts to safely land booster rockets, but they learned from each failure and now booster recovery is fairly routine).

Update March 30, 2018:

On February 18, 2018, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai endorsed the SpaceX application for a constellation of low-Earth orbit (LEO) Internet service satellites and on March 29, the FCC approved their application to "construct, deploy, and operate a proposed non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) satellite system comprising 4,425 satellites for the provision of fixed-satellite service (FSS) around the world."

That makes SpaceX the fourth company with permission to operate an LEO Internet service constellation in the U. S.

The first was OneWeb on June 22, 2017. OneWeb received permission to deploy 720 LEO Internet-service satellites, subject to an important constraint that they "need to accommodate in-line interference avoidance and spectrum sharing with other NGSOs in the future." That cleared the way for spectrum sharing among all operators.

The applications of Telesat and Space Norway were both approved on November 2, 2017. Telesat was granted permission "to access the U.S. market to provide FSS using a proposed constellation of 117 NGSO satellites" and Space Norway was granted permission to "to access the U.S. market to provide FSS using a proposed constellation of two NGSO satellites." (Space Norway is planning coverage in the area north of 65 degrees N latitude, which includes northern Alaska).

Update April 11, 2018:

The final version of the Falcon 9 series, the "Block 5" Falcon 9, was designed for extreme reuse because it will be used to take astronauts to the Space Station and NASA requires seven flights without making any changes in order to qualify for human flight.

Previous Falcon 9 versions were designed to be reused only two or three times, but SpaceX expects Block 5 rockets to have a 100-flight lifespan and only require refurbishing every tenth flight. This will save money and reduce recycle time and the overall time to launch the Starlink constellation. (The FCC's approval of Starlink requires that they launch at least 2,213 satellites within six years).

For a description of previous Falcon 9 version changes and the Block 5, watch this video (17:38):

Update May 21, 2018:

The ability to launch 30 Falcon 9s per year at a cost of $5-6 million per launch, would be a big plus for SpaceX's Starlink Internet service.

On May 11, SpaceX launched a Bangladeshi satellite using their Falcon 9, Block 5 rocket. This was the first production flight for the Block 5. The day before the launch, Elon Musk participated in a call with reporters and the following are some of the points he made. (You can read more analysis and read a full transcript of the call here)

In 2017, SpaceX had 18 successful launches and Musk stated that they were on track to double their launch rate this year, implying a rate of 3 launches per month. He said that "if things go well, which is a caveat, then SpaceX will launch more rockets than any other country in 2018."

There will not be a Block 6. Musk said that after 8 years of upgrades, the Block 5 will be the last major version of the Falcon 9 before their next rocket, the BFR.

Musk expects the Block 5 "to be a mainstay of SpaceX business," and there will be 300 or more Block 5 flights before it is retired in favor of the BFR.

The Block 5 is designed for rapid-turnaround reusability. It is "designed to do 10 or more flights with no refurbishment between each flight — or at least not scheduled refurbishment between each flight. The only thing that needs to change is you reload propellant and fly again." He also said that "the Block 5 boosters are capable of on the order of at least 100 flights before being retired."

Musk has set a goal of demonstrating "two orbital launches of the same Block 5 vehicle within 24 hours, no later than next year."

The Block 5 was designed "to be the most reliable rocket ever built." They have exceeded all of NASA's human-rating requirements and have met "all of the Air Force requirements for extreme reliability."

Reliable reusability will cut cost dramatically. Musk broke down launch cost as follows: booster about 60 percent, upper stage 20 percent, fairing 10% and the launch cost 10%. If they are able to reuse all three rocket elements, they would be able to "reduce the cost for launch by an order of magnitude ... to $5-6 million per launch." Musk pointed out that getting to this point had taken "16 years of extreme effort" (and a lot of learning from failures).

The ability to launch 30 Falcon 9s per year at a cost of $5-6 million per launch, would be a big plus for SpaceX's Starlink Internet service.

Update May 28, 2018:

Source: The Wall Street JournalSpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell gave a recent interview in which she said that SpaceX is profitable, but she predicts a much larger market for the Starlink Internet service. (As we see here, a January 2017 Wall Street Journal article made the same point).

Shotwell also spoke of synergies among Elon Musk's companies: Tesla cars will be online via the Starlink Internet service; Tesla battery technology has been leveraged for the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft and Boring Company technology will be used in housing construction on Mars. They have also learned manufacturing techniques from Tesla and will be able to produce one rocket engine per day and two complete Falcon 9 rockets per month.

She also said they remain on schedule to take people to Mars in 2024, and, when asked about Elon Musk, she said he spends about half his time on SpaceX and half on Tesla and that he is an inspirational leader.

Click here for a survey and updated progress report on SpaceX Starlink and other potential LEO-satellite based Internet service providers.

Update Jun 5, 2018:

Last week, Elon Musk was asked on Twitter how the Starlink tests were going and he replied that the two test satellites, TinTin A and B, are connecting at "high bandwidth" with 25 ms latency.

That's good news but it leaves a lot unanswered. For example, he did not mention the speed and reliability of the phased-array handoffs between the satellites and ground terminals and he said nothing about tests of the inter-satellite laser links.

While we have experience with radio links between satellites and the ground, inter-satellite laser links are new so I'm more curious about those tests. What sorts of speeds and latencies are they seeing on transmissions between TinTin A and B and how well are they doing at creating and maintaining links between the satellites? Fast inter-satellite switching and transmission speed are critical to overall performance of the constellation grid, particularly on long-distance links.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.comVisit Page
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