SpaceX seeks permission for 4,425-satellite internet constellation
On Tuesday, November 15, SpaceX filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch a massive constellation of 4,425 satellites to provide high-speed internet coverage around the world. The satellites will each weigh about 850 pounds (386 kilograms) and, according to a Business Insider report, they will be roughly the size of a Mini Cooper automobile.
Where they will fly
This latest ambitious SpaceX project will nearly quadruple the number of active satellites in orbit. The FCC filing notes that the spacecraft will orbit in 83 different orbital planes at altitudes ranging from 715 miles (1,150 kilometers) to 790 miles (1,325 kilometers) and at inclinations ranging from 53 to 81 degrees. SpaceX plans to launch an initial constellation of 1,600 satellites and then a final deployment of an additional 2,825 spacecraft.
The system will provide coverage in the Ka and Ku bands for approximately five years. Each satellite in the initial 1,600-spacecraft constellation will cover a swath around 658 miles (1,060 kilometers) in diameter.
In its application, SpaceX noted: “The system is designed to provide a wide range of broadband and communications services for residential, commercial, institutional, governmental and professional users worldwide.”
Business Insider reported:
“With deployment of the first 800 satellites, SpaceX will be able to provide widespread U.S. and international coverage for broadband services,” SpaceX wrote. “Once fully optimized through the Final Deployment, the system will be able to provide high bandwidth (up to 1 Gbps per user), low latency broadband services for consumers and businesses in the U.S. and globally.”
The SpaceX System is designed to provide internet speeds of one gigabit per second (1 Gbps), which is comparable to speeds currently offered by ground-based fiber optic networks. For comparison, most cable-based broadband operates at 1 megabit per second (Mbps) to 20 Mbps. Users on SpaceX’s system, then, would be able to download a two-hour high-definition movie in 25 seconds, about 200 times faster than the world average connectivity speed.
In addition to its high speeds, worldwide coverage, and reduced ground-based infrastructure, SpaceX’s system will be designed for low cost ($100–$300/phased-array antenna) and high reliability. SpaceX’s phased-array user antenna design will allow for a small user terminal that will be easy to attach to roofs or walls.
The business end
Space News reported Musk’s announcement of this system in January 2015. SpaceX plans to set up a satellite factory in Seattle. The report noted:
Musk said SpaceX is entering the satellite production business with a new plant based in Seattle in part because there is more money associated with satellite manufacturing than with space-launch services.
“This is intended to be a significant amount of revenue and to help fund a city on Mars,” Musk said. “Looking at the long term, what’s needed to create a city on Mars? Well, one thing’s for sure – a lot of money. So we need things that will generate a lot of money.”
Musk referred to the SpaceX system as akin to “rebuilding the Internet in space.” He estimated last year that the project would cost $10–15 billion to complete.
No announcement has been made regarding the timing or number of launches needed to place the constellation in orbit.
Bart Leahy is a freelance technical writer living in Orlando, Florida. Leahy's diverse career has included work for The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, a number of commercial space companies, small businesses, nonprofits, as well as the Science Cheerleaders.