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May 4, 2017 – SpaceX formally announced its intent to deploy a global network of 4,425 satellites operating in low-earth orbit to provide the world with low latency broadband internet services.
In written testimony, SpaceX vice president of satellite government affairs Patricia Cooper shared that the company had plans to send up a prototype by the end of this year with another following in early 2018. The prototypes would validate the concept of providing much lower latencies than traditional satellite-based broadband internet while also giving SpaceX real world data about the design of the satellite itself.
SpaceX’s proposed network will orbit at much lower altitudes compared to legacy satellite based broadband internet services. The 4,425 satellites would operate in orbits ranging from 1,110 kilometers to 1,325 kilometers over the earth which is considerably closer to the surface than the orbit of more than 35,000 kilometers up that Hughes Satellite Internet’s fleet operates at.
In addition to the satellites being physically closer to the surface, the team believes it has built a better satellite that optimizes the speed of the system specifically for the improved altitude. The SpaceX team believes it can achieve latencies as low as 25-35 ms which, while not on par with land based internet speeds with latencies in the range of 5 ms, represents a massive improvement over its predecessors.
SpaceX hopes to begin launching satellites in 2019 and continue to launch in phases through 2024.
The sheer number of extra satellites SpaceX is proposing has experts concerned about the potential for collisions and a sharp increase in the proliferation of space junk. Considering that there were only 1,459 satellites orbiting earth at the end of 2016 and the fact that a SpaceX move into the space will inevitably trigger competition both domestically and abroad, and the scale of the problem quickly becomes apparent.
The project ultimately aims to provide internet services to the unserved masses at home and abroad which is a noble goal. But let’s not lose sight of why the company is starting this new venture. Chief Elon Musk has publicly stated many times that he believes it would be a great way to raise funds and generate revenue to fund his ultimate objective with SpaceX – to get to Mars. The SpaceX team has a great start, having proven the reusability of the Falcon 9 Stage 1 Booster earlier this year and being able to send satellites to space at cost are both significant advantages that no other company can touch today. If nothing else, they represent a lead time of a few years versus the competition.