SpaceX Launches First Satellites to Extend Broadband Coverage

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This morning, SpaceX successfully launched a Falcon 9 with a payload that could be significant in the long term. The primary mission was to put Paz, a satellite operated by Hisdesat and intended for Earth observations, in orbit. The other two satellites are the first broadband satellites SpaceX has developed for Project Starlink.

Starlink, if you don’t recall, is SpaceX’s plan to build a network of relatively low-cost communication satellites. The initial plan called for 7,500 satellites; the new plan is to launch 12,000. Of these, 7,518 satellites will sit in very-low earth orbit (VLEO), while the rest sit in a standard non-geosynchronous low Earth orbit.

This satellite network would connect to ground base stations using the V band, which ranges from 40 to 75GHz. SpaceX hasn’t disclosed exactly which frequency bands it would be using, and that’s an important question.WaterAttenuation

The degree of attenuation increases as frequency increases, but it doesn’t increase at a linear rate. The first jump is ~38GHz, when the molecular composition of water. Later, at 60GHz, we see attenuation sharply spike, to the point that 98 percent of all energy is absorbed. If Google is targeting higher frequencies, attenuation is less of a problem, though 10-20 percent of it will be lost depending on which frequencies the company elects to adopt.

The company isn’t promising any quick-deployment miracles at this point, and is focused on gaining the technical expertise it needs to make a network of 12,000 satellites able to communicate with the ground and each other.

I’m glad to see companies innovating on designs and capabilities, but I’m leery of satellite communication networks. If you’ve ever used a satellite for internet, you’ll know why. It’s not uncommon for satellite ping times to be 600-800ms, and some satellite ISPs enforce strict quotas on available monthly service. It’s never been a preferred solution at any time. It’s also harder to deal with equipment breakdowns once the satellite is in orbit. Building and launching replacements takes time, and the other satellites in orbit may or may not cover the same geographical areas all that well.

Elon Musk thinks he can bring the technology to market and park his satellites in a low enough orbit to reduce latency. He’s not the only company working on this problem. A VLEO orbit could bring the satellite network close enough to Earth to close most of the gap between terrestrial internet and space internet.

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