The SpaceX satellite constellation is a development project underway by SpaceX to develop a low-cost, high-performance satellite bus and requisite customer ground transceivers to be used to implement a new space-based internet communication system. SpaceX has plans to also sell satellites that use the same satellite bus and these satellites that may be used for scientific or exploratory purposes.
Development began in 2015, initial prototype test-flight satellites are expected to be flown in 2018, and initial operation of the constellation could begin as early as 2019 to 2020. The SpaceX satellite development facility in Redmond, Washington, houses the research and development operations for the satellite internet project.
The communication satellite network SpaceX envisions was publicly announced in January 2015, with the projected capability of supporting the bandwidth to carry up to 50 percent of all backhaul communications traffic and up to 10 percent of local internet traffic in high-density cities. CEO Elon Musk believes that there is significant unmet demand for low-cost global broadband capabilities.
The opening of the SpaceX satellite development facility, in Redmond was announced by SpaceX in January 2015, to build the new communication network. As of January 2015, the Seattle-area office planned to initially hire approximately 60 engineers, with the potential to increase to 1,000 people in the next several years. There were 45 open positions in October 2015. The company was operating in 2,800 square meters (30,000 sq ft) of leased space by late 2016, and by January 2017 had taken on a 3,800 square meters (40,625 sq ft) facility, both in Redmond.
As of June 2015, the company planned to have two prototype satellites flying in 2016, and have the initial satellite constellation in orbit and operational by approximately 2020. However, by 2017, design changes had obviated the original two test satellites, and the launch of two revised satellites had slipped to 2018.
In July 2016, SpaceX acquired a 740 square meters (8,000 sq ft) creative space in Irvine, CA (Orange County). SpaceX job listings indicate the office will include signal processing, RFIC, and ASIC development for the satellite program.
By October 2016, SpaceX had developed test-flight satellites that they hope to launch in 2017 and they are focusing on a significant business challenge of achieving a sufficiently-low-cost design for the user equipment, aiming for something that can ostensibly install easily at end-user premises for approximately US$200. Overall, Shotwell said the project "remains in the design phase as the company seeks to tackle issues related to user-terminal cost." Deployment, if carried out, would not be until "late in this decade or early in the next."
In March 2017, SpaceX filed with the FCC plans to field a constellation of more than 7500 "V-band satellites in non-geosynchronous orbits to provide communications services" in an electromagnetic spectrum that has not previously been "heavily employed for commercial communications services." Called the "V-band low-Earth orbit (VLEO) constellation," it would consist of "7,518 satellites to follow the [earlier] proposed 4,425 satellites that would function in Ka- and Ku-band. The March 2017 plan calls for SpaceX to launch test satellites of the type in both 2017 and 2018, and as of May 2017, begin launching the operational constellation sats in 2019. Full build-out of the constellation is not expected to be completed until 2024, at which time there are expected to be "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." By September 2017, the planned number of sats in each constellation had not changed, but the altitude of each constellation became explicit: the larger group—7,518 sats—would operate at 340 kilometres (210 mi) altitude, while the smaller group—4,425 sats—would orbit at 1,200 kilometres (750 mi) altitude.
Some controversy has arisen in 2015–2017 with regulatory authorities on licensing the communications spectrum for these large constellations of satellites. The traditional and historical regulatory rule for satellites licensing comm spectrum has been that satellite operators could "launch a single spacecraft to meet their in-service deadline [from the regulator], a policy seen as allowing an operator to block the use valuable radio spectrum for years without deploying its fleet." The US regulatory authority has set a six-year deadline to have an entire large constellation deployed to comply with licensing terms. The international regulator, the ITU, has proposed by mid-2017 an international guideline that would be considerably less restrictive. As of September 2017, both Boeing and SpaceX have petitioned the US FCC for a waiver of the 6-year rule.
In August 2017, SpaceX filed legal documents seeking to trademark the name Starlink for their satellite broadband network.
By October 2017, SpaceX had filed documents with the US FCC with their space debris mitigation plan. SpaceX will "implement an operations plan for the orderly de-orbit of satellites nearing the end of their useful lives (roughly five to seven years) at a rate far faster than is required under international standards. [Satelites] will de-orbit by propulsively moving to a disposal orbit from which they will reenter the Earth's atmosphere within approximately one year after completion of their mission."
Global broadband internet
Two space entrepreneurs announced internet satellite ventures in the same week. In addition to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announcing this project, serial-entrepreneur Richard Branson announced an investment in OneWeb, a similar constellation with approximately 700 satellites that has already procured communication frequency licenses for their broadcast spectrum.
After the failure of previous satellite-to-consumer space ventures, satellite industry consultant Roger Rusch said "It's highly unlikely that you can make a successful business out of this." Musk has publicly acknowledged this business reality, and indicated in mid-2015 that while endeavoring to develop this technically-complicated space-based communication system he wants to avoid overextending the company and stated that they are being measured in the pace of development.
In February 2015, financial analysts questioned established geosynchronous orbit communications satellite fleet operators as to how they intend to respond to the competitive threat of SpaceX/Google and OneWeb LEO communication satellites. In October, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell indicated that while development continues the business case for the long-term rollout of an operational satellite network is still in an early phase.
In 2015, court documents indicate that SpaceX had engaged in collaboration with wireless chip-maker Broadcom. Five key engineers subsequently left to join SpaceX leading to a lawsuit filed by Broadcom alleging that "SpaceX stole our best minds." In March, an Orange County judge denied Broadcom's multiple restraining order requests.
Extending to use beyond Earth
Longer-term, SpaceX intends to develop and deploy a version of the satellite communication system that would be used at Mars. In the mid-term, SpaceX is interested in the satcomm system on Earth generating revenue that would be helpful in providing capital for the company's Mars transport project.
Internet communication satellite characteristics
The internet communication satellites are expected to be in the smallsat-class of 100-to-500 kg (220-to-1,100 lb)-mass, which are intended to be orbiting at an altitude of approximately 1,100 kilometers (680 mi). Initial plans as of January 2015 were for the constellation to be made up of approximately 4000 cross-linked satellites, more than twice as many operational satellites as were in orbit in January 2015.
The satellites would be mass-produced, at much lower cost per unit of capability than existing satellites. Musk said "We’re going to try and do for satellites what we’ve done for rockets." "In order to revolutionize space, we have to address both satellites and rockets." "Smaller satellites are crucial to lowering the cost of space-based Internet and communications."
In February 2015, SpaceX asked the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to consider future innovative uses of the Ka-band spectrum before the FCC commits to 5G communications regulations that would create barriers to entry, since SpaceX is a new entrant to the satellite communications market. The SpaceX non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) communications satellite constellation will operate in the high frequency bands above 24 GHz, "where steerable earth station transmit antennas would have a wider geographic impact and significantly lower satellite altitudes magnify the impact of aggregate interference from terrestrial transmissions."
The system will not compete with Iridium satellite constellation, which is designed to link directly to handsets. Instead, it will be linked to flat user terminals the size of a pizza box, which will have phased array antennas and track the satellites. The terminals can be mounted anywhere, as long as they can see the sky.
Prototype development and testing
SpaceX plans to begin flight testing of their satellite technologies in 2018, with the planned launch of two test satellites, MicroSat-1a and MicroSat-1b. The satellites will orbit in a circular low Earth orbit at 625 kilometers (388 mi) altitude in a high-inclination orbit for a planned six to twelve-month duration. The sats will communicate with three testing ground stations in Washington and California for short-term experiments of less than ten minutes duration, roughly daily. Both microsats will be launched into 625 km circular orbits at approximately 86.4 degrees inclination, and will include panchromatic video imager cameras to film image of Earth and the satellite.
MicroSat-1a and 1b were planned, as of June 2015, to be the first of up to eight prototype sats to be flown before deployment of the operational constellation. At the time of the June 2015 announcement, SpaceX had originally planned to launch the first two demonstration satellites in 2016, before that target date was subsequently moved out to 2018.
Competition and market effects
In addition to the OneWeb constellation, announced nearly concurrently with the SpaceX constellation, a 2015 proposal from Samsung has outlined a 4600-satellite constellation orbiting at 1,400 kilometers (900 mi) that could provide a zettabyte per month capacity worldwide, an equivalent of 200 gigabytes per month for 5 billion users of internet data. However, this proposal has not yet advanced to full development.
By October 2017, the expectation for large increases in satellite network capacity from emerging lower-altitude broadband constellations caused market players to cancel investments in new geosynchronous orbit broadband commsats.
- Globalstar - a low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellation for satellite phone and low-speed data communications
- Iridium satellite constellation – an operational constellation of 66 active satellites used to provide global satellite phone service
- ORBCOMM – an operational constellation used to provide global asset monitoring and messaging services from its constellation of 29 LEO communications satellites orbiting at 775 km
- Teledesic – a former (1990s) venture to accomplish broadband satellite internet services
- ViaSat Communications – operates an existing operational satellite internet service
- OneWeb satellite constellation – a proposed satellite constellation to provide global internet broadband service to individual consumers as early as 2019
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Italics indicate unflown vehicles and future missions or sites. † denotes failed missions, destroyed vehicles and abandoned sites.