February 22nd saw SpaceX successfully send a rocket into orbit carrying two small ‘test’ satellites for a proposed 4,425 initial satellite constellation. The project, backed by Elon Musk, is designed to bring broadband access to billions of unserved or under-served users around the world in his ‘Starlink’ service.
Musk talks of populating the constellation with a follow-up further 7,518 satellites in very low orbit (of just 200 miles up) in order to bring 5G super-connectivity and minimal latency to users. The launch took place from Vandenburg Air Force Base in California at 6.17am California time (14.17pm GMT/UST).
SpaceX had no plans to return the rocket first stage to Earth (which also launched a Spanish Earth observation satellite) as it had already flown once before and was an early version of the Falcon 9 rocket. However, SpaceX was hoping to recover the rocket’s valuable fairing.
If all goes well with these two test vehicles (Microsat 2a and 2b), Musk is proposing to eventually bring into use a service addressing the 14 million Americans living in rural US, plus another 1.2 million tribal Americans who have next-to-zero connectivity. This can happen once Musk’s engineers have about 800 satellites in Low Earth Orbit, which should be completed during 2020-2021.
However, Musk doesn’t have all this space in orbit to himself. There are another half-dozen other projects eager to tap into this market.
The most advanced is OneWeb, backed by Greg Wyler and financed by a consortium of deep-pocketed investors including Japan’s SoftBank, Airbus, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin operation, Intelsat, Bharti of India, Qualcomm and even Coca Cola.
OneWeb wants 720 satellites, also in Low Earth Orbit at 750 miles high, and with the first deployment next year. OneWeb is building satellites now in order to deliver 500 Mb/s internet connectivity building to 2.5 Gb/s streaming by 2021. OneWeb’s first batch of 10 satellites will be ready for launch in May. Wyler, in a joint-venture with Airbus, is building a dedicated factory to mass-produce satellites in Florida.