Musk takes first step towards SpaceX broadband vision

SpaceX has kicked off its satellite broadband mission with the launch of 60 assets, all of which are now online.

The Elon Musk business has a vision to create an alternative offering for the broadband industry, relying on a monstrous number of assets floating at an operational altitude of 550km above the earth. The ‘Starlink Network’ is only just beginning, with Musk suggesting it would take another six missions to begin offering sparse services, while mediocre connectivity will only be delivered after a further twelve launches.

Even before Musk’s internet vision can begin to become reality, SpaceX will have to launch a further 720 satellites into orbit.

One of the big questions which remains is how congested the skies will get before too long. As it currently stands, there are roughly 2,000 satellites orbiting the earth, a number which causes some unease already. Considering Musk plans to have 12,000 in operation to deliver a broadband solution to the industry, the skies are going to be getting very crowded.

Started in 2002, SpaceX now employs more than 6,000 people with three launch sites in California, Texas and Florida. The firm is now one of several which has the ambition of creating mega-constellations to deliver connectivity, Amazon is another with its Project Kuiper and British start-up OneWeb has also launched its own satellites.

The mission started at 22.30 local time at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Musk announced that approximately one hour and two minutes after lift-off, the Starlink satellites were deployed at an altitude of 440km, with on-board propulsion systems taking the assets to operational altitude of 550km.

While this does sounds like a very ambitious venture for Musk, this is only a means to an end. The proceeds from delivering broadband connectivity will be used to fuel future, grander missions, such as Musk’s desire to colonise the Moon and Mars…

One small step for SpaceX, one giant leap for the internet

It might have been a couple of days overdue, but Elon Musk’s SpaceX has finally launched its first satellite with the promise of delivering high-speed, reliable internet.

The launch itself is one of the first steps taken in an ambitious project known as Starlink which will aim to nearly 12,000 satellites to orbit by the mid-2020s to create a space-based Internet communication system. While the idea of satellite delivery for internet is not new, Musk’s plan is to use smaller satellites which operate in a low earth orbit, which in theory should remove any lag in delivery, is a new approach. This lag has been the criticism of such ambitions in years gone.

The launch officially took place at 6.17am on February 21, after a three day delay. The PAZ satellite will orbit Earth 15 times per day, covering an area of over 300,000km2 from an altitude of 514km and a velocity of seven km per second. While this might not seem like a huge amount of coverage, once Musk has launched a couple thousand of these assets into orbit, it becomes a much more feasible idea.

Now down to the techie stuff. The satellites will employ optical inter-satellite links and advanced phased array beam forming and digital processing technologies in the Ku- and Ka-band according to documents filed with the FCC. Many of the details on how the satellites will actually work are being kept under wraps right now, though we do know the assets will use frequencies above 10,000 GHz. These satellites will be linked to flat user terminals, as opposed to directly to handsets, which can be placed anywhere assuming they can see the sky. In terms of set up, it does sound simple which could appeal to developing markets.

It does seem like a very good idea, perhaps one of the reasons it has not been overly considered to date is because of the expense. The theory is there, but the practicalities of running a space-based Internet communication system are relatively unknown – experience for the vast majority has been limited to earth to date. It is an expensive experiment, but Musk has made his name through expensive experiments; blue-sky thinking is generally limited to those with large bank accounts after all.

The effect on the wider communications industry is likely to be felt in the rural communities, under-developed market and notorious not-spots though. Musk is unlikely to have any profound impact on the way the majority of Western markets consume the internet, as while this is a nice idea, speeds and reliability from the satellites will not be able to compete with fibre.