SpaceX plans to launch first internet-providing satellites in 2019

SpaceX plans to launch first internet-providing satellites in 2019

by Rich McCormick May 4, 2017, 12:19am EDT

SpaceX has its sights set on Mars, but that doesn’t mean it has forgotten about Earth. Elon Musk’s company yesterday outlined its plan to put a network of internet-providing satellites around our planet, stating in a Senate hearing on broadband infrastructure that it wanted to start sending the craft into space in 2019, before the full network came online in 2024.

SpaceX’s vice president of satellite government affairs, Patricia Cooper, said that the company was aiming to get a prototype satellite into space this year, before launching another in the early months of 2018. These prototypes will be used to demonstrate that the custom-built craft are capable of providing internet for Earth dwellers, but assuming the tests go successfully, SpaceX plans to start building the network proper in 2019.

The company will launch additional satellites in phases until 2024, at which point Cooper says the network should have reached full capacity, with the craft operating on the Ka- and Ku-band frequencies. SpaceX will be using its own Falcon 9 rockets to get the satellites into low-Earth orbit — a measure that will help it save costs and ensure it’s not beholden to the launch schedules of other spacefaring firms.

Cooper said the plan would put 4,425 satellites into orbit around the Earth, operating in 83 planes, at fairly low altitudes of between 1,110 kilometers and 1,325 kilometers. The company will also support its network with ground control centers, gateway stations, and other Earth-based facilities. That makes it an ambitious plan, not least in terms of volume. There are only an estimated 1,459 satellites in orbit around our planet at the moment — the SpaceX scheme would launch triple that figure, potentially cluttering up the space around Earth, making future launches potentially difficult and dangerous.

But while the plan might increase the amount of space junk, it could also make it much easier for everyone to get relatively fast internet back on Earth. Cooper said that using a space-based network meant companies didn’t need to install, rip up, and reinstall cabling in order to provide a service. "In other words, the common challenges associated with siting, digging trenches, laying fiber, and dealing with property rights are materially alleviated through a space-based broadband network," she said.

System updates, SpaceX says, will allow the network to stay relevant and up to speed with technological changes — hopefully ensuring that we don’t end up with a mass of useless satellites in low orbit a few short years after their launch. The network will also be able to adapt to need, allocating resource to specific areas during busy times, and avoiding interference with other systems. Customer terminals will be the size of a laptop, Ars Technica says, while speeds should be somewhere between current cable and fiber-optic options, with latencies of around 35ms.


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