Starlink: Elon Musk’s Endless Vision

Falcon Heavy Launch site 2018

Starlink is a SpaceX project which aims to provide satellite internet anywhere in the world whether you are in the Amazons, top of Everest or the Sahara desert.

The way to achieve this goal is through putting about 10,000 low-orbit satellites, which will serve to cut the latency of the services. Satellite internet is a common technology, however, a typical satellite’s geostationary orbit is more than 22,000 miles above ground. According to SpaceX’s FCC filings, Starlink satellites in low orbit will be 684 and 823 miles in the air.

Elon Musk said “The focus is going to be on creating a global communication system. In the long term, it will be like rebuilding the internet in space. The goal will be to have the majority of internet traffic go over this network and about 10% local and business traffic.”

Elon Musk’s Tweet on Feb 21, 2018 – If anyone is curious, the name was inspired by the book:  The Fault in Our Stars written by John Green. Elon considered calling it Skynet but decided against it for obvious reasons.

Pure Ambition

There are currently only 1,459 satellites currently in orbit around earth, along with 2,600 inactive. SpaceX aims to launch about 12000 satellites, which will be cheaper and low-orbit satellites serving to provide cheap and unintermittent internet anywhere in the world.

Starlink satellite project

How It Works

The current higher orbit satellites have a latency of 600 to 1200 ms and since the Starlink satellites will be 30 times closer to the earth, the latency will be reduced to 25 to 50ms.

Also, Light travels through fiber optic cables 30% to 50% the speed of light. Light. . .travel at the speed of light in a vacuum

SpaceX seeks patent for custom-built Starlink internet satellite antenna design

Fiber cables need to follow infrastructure, communities and countries. Satellites are direct line-of-sight communications. Fiber cables need a repeater about every 100 miles to boost the signal.

Tom Praderio, a SpaceX firmware engineer, said during live launch commentary “This system, if successful, would provide people in low to moderate population densities around the world with affordable high-speed internet access, including many who have never had Internet access before,”

Timeline

2015 – Announced during a Seattle visit.

2017 – Added “satellite photography services” and remote sensing services or aerial surveying

2017 Oct – SpaceX filed application with FCC to ground test a satellite communications system between its facilities in Redmond, Washington

2018 Jan – Ground testing a satellite communications system between facilities in Redmond, Wash to 2018 April 24

2018 Feb 22 – First 2 prototypes launched. Tintin A & B

2018 March 29th – FCC approved the application by SpaceX, allowing the company to provide broadband services using satellites in the U.S. and world wide. The vote was 5-0 in favor.

2018 – Need to provide detailed plans on how they will deal with satellites once they are out of service

2018 to early 2019 – Second set of test satellites put in orbit

2021 or 2022 – First 800 satellites available to consumers. 2024 to 2029 – Full system in place with 4,425 operational satellites

March 2024 – FCC deadline to deploy half of Phase 1 constellation (2,213 satellites)

March 2027 – FCC deadline to deploy Phase 1 constellation (4,425 satellites)

Challenges

One company adding 8 times more than the total number of satellites results with natural challenges

  • FCC Approval

In March, 2018, FCC approved the application by SpaceX, allowing the company to provide broadband services using satellites in the U.S. and world wide. The vote was 5-0 in favor.

  • Space debris

According to a filing SpaceX made to the FCC, they aim to minimize the effects of the space debris following the lifetime of the satellites by moving the satellites from 1100km to 550km sub-orbit distance from the earth. SpaceX believes the advantages of this action are twofold. The one advantage is that they wouldn’t need as much satellite as they would and that it would be easier to move the satellites out of the orbit once they are no more deployed.

  • Competition

Starlink is not the only low-orbit satellite project for global internet. The following are the major projects, which are still considerably smaller scale and much less ambitious compared to Starlink

  • OneWeb – received a key approval in June 2017 from the FCC. 720 satellites on Atlas V’s, start selling services in 2019 in Alaska
  • Iridium satellite constellation – an operational constellation of 66 active LEO 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 31 LEO communications satellites orbiting at 775 km
  • LeoSat – In planning stages. 108 low-Earth-orbit (1400km) satellites at the cost of 3 billion Euros
  • Costs

Elon estimated the cost at $10 to $15 billion. (Back in 2015)

Gwynne Shotwell TED interview mentioned that the deployment of Starlink would cost around $10 billion. (2018)

SpaceX charges $62 million per launch of a Falcon 9 reusable. (Block 4/Rev 6)

Worst case: 177 flights = $11 billion – launch costs only.

Starlink Phases

  • Phase 1. 1,600 Initial deployment. 2825 Final Deployment, totaling 4425 satellites. Commercial broadband service starts after launching the first 800 Satellites
  • Phase 2. planned 7,518 satellites in VLEO (Very-Low-Earth Orbit) NGSO (Non-Geostationary Satellite Orbit) Constellation at about 322km up (200 miles) to increase overall bandwidth in populated areas and better ping times.

About the Satellites

  • 386 kg (850lbs) each from the FCC application
  • 1.1 m × 0.7 m × 0.7 m. There are two 2 m × 8 m solar panels. (Dimensions based on Tintin A & B)
  • 5 year lifespan
  • Planned controlled de-orbit at end of life
  • Expected to be mass produced in house at SpaceX facilities in Redmond and Brewster, Washington
  • 83 orbital planes 1,110km to 1,325km (700 miles)

How many launches needed to complete Phase 1?

  • On a Falcon 9 RTLS (Return to Launch Site) it is mass limited to around 25 for each launch, not fairing volume limited.
  • On a Falcon Heavy it is mass limited to around 72 for each 2 x RTLS + ASDS (Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship) FH launch so fairing (1.0) volume limited to the range of 30-40.
  • On a Big Falcon Rocket – Could launch around 388 satellites per launch by mass. Not sure how many they could stuff into the upper stage, plus there are issues with releasing them in their proper planer orbits.
  • Using a Falcon 9 at 25 satellites per launch it would take 177 flights, about 36 flights per year.
  • Using a Falcon Heavy with 40 satellites it would take 112 flights, over 5 years that’s about 22 flights per year.
  • Using a BFR assuming 350 satellites per launch, until someone comes up with a better number, would need 13 flights total.

Current Status

Elon Musk fired a number of SpaceX engineers in June, 2018 since he wasn’t happy with the progress made for the timely development of the Starlink project. SpaceX raised $500 million in December, 2018, which valued SpaceX at $30.5 billion, to support Starlink, the company’s nascent constellation of satellites for global internet broadband service.

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