SpaceX is out not just to make a mark in spaceflight. It is also setting its sights on launching the first of a network of internet-providing satellites in 2019, starting the technology’s development later this year.
CEO Elon Musk revealed the news recently in a Senate hearing on broadband infrastructure, expressing plans to upend traditional broadband services.
Musk initially expressed the intent to build an internet network consisting of thousands of satellites in low-Earth orbit. It is poised to offer 1 gigabit-per-second (Gbps) broadband to customers worldwide.
In a May 3 Senate hearing, SpaceX vice president of satellite government affairs Patricia Cooper spoke before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. She outlined the firm’s goal of serving as a satellite broadband internet service provider.
Cooper confirmed that once complete, their network will cover 4,425 satellites at low altitudes, positioned up to 823.3 miles above Earth’s surface in 83 various planes. This will triple the amount of satellites orbiting the planet, which are currently 1,459 in total.
The satellites are projected to provide broadband service to 34 million Americans, 23 million of which are found in rural areas and currently not served by traditional broadband companies. The benefit is in doing away with the necessity of installing, ripping up, and reinstalling cable as done by ground-based teams.
“In other words, the common challenges associated [with traditional broadband services] are materially alleviated through a space-based broadband network,” said Cooper.
The goal is to launch two custom satellite prototypes this year and in early 2018, Cooper added, with tests to be conducted to see if they can actually provide internet access to Earth. The satellite network, once operational, will be regularly given system updates in order to not become obsolete technology.
Recently, however, the massive increase in orbiting satellites has been eyed as a potential problem for future space missions and launches from Earth.
Regulatory Issues And Feasibility
The red tape in government agencies is one factor that poses a challenge to SpaceX’s mission. As Spaceflight Insider reported, the company posits a change in the licensing process from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission will be necessary if its accelerated launch schedule is to be observed.
The processes in those agencies, which grant launch and radio frequency licenses, can significantly impede SpaceX’s plans.
Cooper clarified, however, that they remain eager to work with the government to simplify the process.
The historical definition of “satellite data services,” too, excludes broadband. The Musk-owned company argued that its service will be, after all, massively different from other offerings.
As for potential risks, size is a likely issue. SpaceX needs to design, build, and set forth a huge fleet of spacecraft, with the thousands of satellites representing a great deal of concern. Low-Earth orbit is already deemed congested, so such a considerable satellite network necessitates a great number of active spacecraft and enhances collision risks.
Yet SpaceX continues to target success in this planned satellite network, which will receive support from Earth-based facilities such as control centers and gateway stations. It’s all about providing “fiber-like services at market-prevailing prices,” only using a satellite infrastructure this time, Cooper said.