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SpaceX Internet constellations planned

August 21, 2017

Elon Musk’s SpaceX makes regular headlines for its rocket launches – and impressive landings – but there’s every prospect that Musk’s next major venture extends beyond Tesla cars, Hyperloop trains, and even journeys to Mars, with his plans to build two truly massive satellite constellations for global broadband coverage.

Plan 1 is for a total of 4425 small satellites circling the Earth in 83 different orbital paths and ranging from 1110 to 1325 kilometers altitude, usually described in Low Earth Orbit.

SpaceX’s Patricia Cooper (VP/Satellite Government Affairs) told a US Senate Committee earlier this year that a prototype satellite was likely to be launched this coming winter, and a second early in 2018.  Operational satellites would follow steadily thereafter with the completed constellation in place by 2024. Services could begin before 2024 but the global presence – including the important ground segment – would be ready by 2024.

Cooper told the Committee that SpaceX had also filed an application to launch a second constellation.

Plan 2 is to launch this second – even larger – constellation, operating at lower altitudes. This scheme comprises 7500 satellites, in Very Low Earth Orbit of 336-345 kms high, and operating just below the International Space Station which officially orbits at 330-435 kms but tends to be kept in the 404-407 km range.  Comments about the problems outlined in the Hollywood disaster movie ‘Gravity’ are best ignored!

These 7500 satellites would have spectacular latency, that is the response time for messages would be ultra-fast, and – if successful – could dramatically change how Internet Service Providers operate. Professor Larry Press, from California State University, in a recent blog-post says that 20 years ago there were some 4000 ISPs in North America, but today few Americans have more than a handful of ISP choices. He asks whether the Musk satellite schemes might lead to a near-dominant position over the plant, and how would this be regulated?

Certainly, the SpaceX proposals could mean that Musk might easily compete – both in capacity and speed – with terrestrial networks in both urban areas and country regions. One speculative blog-post (by Ireland-based Gavin Sheridan at Vizlegal) suggests that Musk’s plans might have much more to do with his Tesla self-driving cars, and their need for continuous connectivity. Today’s North American Tesla cars use AT&T’s cellular connectivity and consume “quite a few gigabytes of data” per month, says Sheridan.

Of course, Musk/SpaceX are not alone in seeking out this market. Greg Wyler’s OneWeb – and already building its first satellites – is also extremely active. As is Boeing with its own plan, and the SES-backed O3b service which is already in space.

The target? A decent slice of the world’s broadband traffic – and the revenues that flow from such connectivity.

SpaceX carried out a static engine test August 19th on the Falcon 9 rocket due to loft Formosat-5 on August 24th, weather permitting. The launch, from Vandenberg Air Force Base is expected to see the rocket’s first stage land on SpaceX’s ‘Just Read The Instructions’ floating landing barge offshore about 344 kms downrange.

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