At the end of 2016, there were an estimated 1,459 satellites orbiting our pale blue dot. Elon Musk’s SpaceX wants to put 4,425 new custom-designed satellites in a low-earth orbit, and build a mesh network capable of delivering gigabit Internet.
This constellation of satellites will operate at altitudes ranging from 1,110 kilometers to 1,325 kilometers, or approximately 680 and 820 miles, respectively. For comparison, The International Space Station orbits Earth at an altitude of 400 kilometers or about 250 miles.
At a broadband infrastructure hearing by the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation, SpaceX’s VP of Satellite Government Affairs, Patricia Cooper, explained exactly when and how SpaceX plans to build this satellite network:
Later this year, SpaceX will begin the process of testing the satellites themselves, launching one prototype before the end of the year and another during the early months of 2018. Following successful demonstration of the technology, SpaceX intends to begin the operational satellite launch campaign in 2019. The remaining satellites in the constellation will be launched in phases through 2024, when the system will reach full capacity with the Ka- and Ku-Band satellites. SpaceX intends to launch the system onboard our Falcon 9 rocket, leveraging significant launch cost savings afforded by the first stage reusability now demonstrated with the vehicle.
Cooper says that this mesh network will be able to “allocate broadband resources in real time, placing capacity where it is most needed, and directing energy away from areas where it might cause interference to other systems, either in space or on the ground”. SpaceX wants the internet delivered directly to customers’ homes, significantly reducing the need for laying down an expensive and extensive fiber network.
According to a 2015 report by the FCC, existing satellite networks deliver a latency of no less than 600 milliseconds, but SpaceX’s network will alleviate this problem due to being in a low-earth orbit, and having latencies of as low as 25 milliseconds. That’s comparable to a land-based DSL network, but still worse than what a fiber-to-the-home connection could offer.
Silicon Valley giants have been trying to build a network of satellites to deliver Internet connectivity for the past couple of years. In 2016, Facebook wanted to provide internet access to rural areas in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, but SpaceX managed to blow up those plans.
SpaceX promises that its technology won’t get stale and that it will continuously update the network to meet its customers’ demands. If it does launch more satellites to update the network, hopefully, it will retire the old ones first so that the problem of “space junk” can be avoided.