SpaceX launches first broadband satellites

By on 26 February, 2018

SpaceX’s PAZ mission, carrying the first satellites for the Starlink constellation, lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Image: SpaceX via Flickr.

Space exploration firm SpaceX has launched the first two satellites of its ‘Starlink’ broadband constellation into low-earth orbit.

SpaceX has indicated that its Starlink constellation could ultimately contain up to 12,000 microsatellites, and could theoretically provide constant global coverage when complete.

SpaceX’s satellite broadband initiative differs mainly from existing approaches to space-based internet infrastructure by using small satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO), with a mean altitude of around 2,000 kilometres above Earth, to combat the latency traditionally associated with satellite-based internet service.

Most existing internet satellites are in geostationary orbit, almost 36,000 kilometres above the Earth’s surface. The company has indicated they initially intend to launch an into 800 satellites into LEO to establish U.S. coverage, followed by around 7,000 in very low Earth orbit (VLEO), which refers to orbits of a mean altitude less than 450 kilometres.

The Falcon 9 carrying Starlink satellites dubbed ‘Tintin A’ and ‘Tintin B’ were piggy-backed on the launch mission of Spanish Earth observation satellite PAZ. The inclusion of the Starlight microsatellites on the PAZ mission was not publicly announced until the day of the launch, when SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted to announce their presence, though they had been spotted by astute observers in documentation submitted by SpaceX to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) earlier in February.

Just under three hours later, Musk also tweeted the first footage beamed from the rocket of the satellites floating into space.

In another first, SpaceX attempted to ‘catch’ the Falcon 9 launch vehicle’s fairing on a ship with a giant net, inexplicably named ‘Mr. Steven’.

Mr. Steven was several hundred metres shy of the nosecone’s splashdown, and was later photographed hauling the Falcon 9’s fairing into port at San Pedro, California.

SpaceX launch launch theatrics aside, the deployment of the Starlink satellites is significant in terms of what it represents for the future of networked communications, and the rapidly expanding and increasingly bold activities of ‘new space’.

The firm first announced their intention to build a colossal low-Earth constellation of broadband satellites in 2015, with the stated intention of providing internet access to areas of Earth with poor internet access rates currently, and has remained relatively tight-lipped on the proposal since then.

The ambitious proposal seems to depend financially on the low costs associated with SpaceX’s reusable Falcon launch vehicles, and the low overheads associated with the small satellites that will form the nodes of the Starlink network. As SpaceX positions itself as the most cost-effective launch service provider after the spectacular Falcon Heavy launch, it will be able to loft its Starlink microsatellites into orbit via launches for other missions, as it has with these first two test satellites.

Starlink seems intended to provide a significant chunk of the revenue to finance some of Musk’s wilder ambitions, with documents obtained by the Wall Street Journal showing that SpaceX anticipates up to 40 million subscribers by 2025, generating an estimated revenue of $30 billion for that year.

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