SpaceX Overcomes a Major Hurdle for Deploying Internet-beaming Satellites

The FCC has approved SpaceX’s request to launch an additional 7,000 odd satellite at a relatively lower orbit that will complete the Starlink constellation and provide global Internet coverage from space.

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Space internet set to be a reality by next decade

Elon Musk’s endeavors have always been overtly grandiose – from developing the world’s first commercial electric vehicle to planning on colonizing Mars. One of his equally ambitious project is Starlink – a constellation of interconnected satellites that provides high-speed internet to the entire planet. He had previously launched two test satellites for the constellation so far – named TinTin A and B, requiring a total of 12,000 to ensure global internet coverage. In March 2018, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved the launch of 4,425 satellites operating at heights between 690 and 820 miles. On 18th November, the FCC further approved SpaceX’s request to launch an additional 7,518 satellites meant to operate at altitudes between 208 and 214 miles above the earth’s surface.

The FCC approval was set to be a major hurdle in Elon Musk’s plan becoming a reality. One of the many reasons FCC was skeptical of the plan was the vast increase in the number of satellites orbiting the earth – which increased chances of collision and space debris. In order to minimize the risk, SpaceX lowered the altitude of at which the new satellites would be operational. In addition, operating at a lower altitude would cut down on latency – an important aspect while accessing the internet. Meanwhile, FCC has also revised its guidelines for how companies should mitigate orbital debris in space.

“I’m excited to see what these services might promise and what these proposed constellations have to offer,” FCC chairman Ajit Pai said today during the meeting in which the constellations were approved. “Our approach to these applications reflects this commission’s fundamental approach to encourage the private sector to invest and to innovate and allow market forces to deliver value to American consumers.”

In addition to fulfilling SpaceX’s request, the FCC has also approved the license of three other companies – Telesat, LeoSat, and Kepler Communications – which want to put constellations of 117, 78, and 140 satellites into orbit, respectively.

At an expected cost of $10 billion, SpaceX aims the Starlink constellation to be operational by the mid-2020’s. Their deadline is also pressured by the FCC – which mandates that SpaceX puts around 6,000 of Starlink satellites into space by 2024. SpaceX has planned on launching the first batch of the satellites by 2019. Once the satellites get deployed, they will perform a synchronized dance above Earth and allow every part of the Earth’s surface to have a direct line of sight to at least one satellite. It would be a wonderful sight to watch at night, and the project will ensure global connectivity at an unprecedented level.

Mark Handley, professor of Networked Systems in the Department of Computer Science at University College London, has recently created a computer simulation to test the feasibility of the project. He stated that the entire concept seemed feasible, though SpaceX would be “pushing the limits of technology in several areas simultaneously.” “Their use of phased array wireless links to steer narrow beams to and from the satellites will be pushing the limits of what has been done. This is mostly known technology, but doing it to the degree they’re doing it will be challenging,” Handley stated.