WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Elon Musk’s company SpaceX wants to bring high speed, quality internet access to every person on Earth, and they’re starting today.
Now that the dust has settled from SpaceX’s first successful Falcon Heavy mission earlier this month, which was years in the planning, the company is getting back to business with another seemingly routine Falcon 9 launch. The rocket is slated to take off from California later today, and its main mission will be to launch an Earth observation satellite called Paz for Spain. More significantly, however, the rocket will also be carrying two additional hitchhikers, two prototype satellites that were built last year for SpaceX in a factory in near Seattle, and the company’s going to use them to test out Elon Musk’s next great venture, something he announced last year, beaming down internet from space and finally realising another of his dreams – to connect every person, and inadvertently, thing, on the planet to high quality, global internet.
Sending up these two test satellites, which are named Microsat-2a and Microsat-2b, is the first big in helping SpaceX meeting its lofty goals to create the world’s first truly global internet satellite network.
Announced in 2016 the company wants to create a giant constellation of nearly 12,000 satellites that will orbit the Earth in a synchronised dance, beaming internet connectivity to receivers on the planet’s surface.
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One set of 4,425 satellites will sit about 700 miles up, while 7,518 satellites will sit about 200 miles up, in low Earth orbit, and both will operate on different radio frequencies, as such the massive satellite fleet will be constantly in motion around the planet and, as a result, will be able to provide coverage to every place on Earth at all times, finally helping us all realise the day when every person and thing on Earth has access to high quality internet, and all the benefits it brings, not just the 3.5 billion people who have good quality internet access today.
SpaceX expects the system, called Starlink, to be a big moneymaker, with financial projections obtained by The Wall Street Journal in 2017 showing that the company expects to have more than 40 million subscribers to the service by 2025, amounting to $30 billion in revenue that year alone. However, while that in itself is big news the biggest news is the one that many people seem to have forgotten about, the fact that, as Musk announced a while back, he’s basically planning on using the revenues generated from Starlink to fund his ultimate dream – the human colonisation of Mars… It’s also likely that one day, following on from NASA’s recent trials of their own interplanetary, “delay tolerant” internet system that Musk will use Starlink to relay information to and from said red planet.
Of course, there’s a lot of complexity to the system that SpaceX needs to figure out first. The company needs to be able to simultaneously coordinate thousands of satellites in non-geostationary orbit at all times, meaning they won’t stay in a fixed position above the planet. And then there’s the technology needed to receive the internet on Earth. The satellites will constantly be moving over different patches of land, so the receiving antennas will need to be able to rapidly figure out which satellite is best to communicate with at any given time.
Above all, SpaceX needs access to part of the radio spectrum — the range of airwave frequencies that will be used to send the internet down from space. SpaceX has filed numerous applications with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is responsible for dictating how commercial satellite companies use those airwaves, and on February 14th, FCC chairman Ajit Pai made a statement showing his enthusiasm for the project.
“Following careful review of this application by our International Bureau’s excellent satellite engineering experts, I have asked my colleagues to join me in supporting this application and moving to unleash the power of satellite constellations to provide high-speed internet to rural Americans,” Pai said in a statement, adding, “if adopted, it would be the first approval given to an American based company to provide broadband services using a new generation of low Earth orbit satellite technologies.”
When and if the application will be approved is unclear, though Pai’s support makes the approval much more likely.
Putting working satellites in orbit will help SpaceX stake its claim to the spectrum. Then, the company hopes to launch its first operational satellites in 2019, the same year that competitor OneWeb, who are backed by Facebook, Qualcomm and Virgin Group, hopes to bring its own internet satellites online. However, the company is keeping quiet on Microsat-2a and Microsat-2b for this launch. The main goal of the mission is to launch Paz, and SpaceX will be focusing on that.
The Paz satellite will be going to a low orbit that runs over the poles, where it will be used by Spanish commercial companies and the government of Spain. The Falcon 9 taking the satellite to space will be another one of the company’s used boosters, but unlike previous vehicles this one won’t be attempting a landing after takeoff, something the company didn’t give a reason for.
SpaceX was originally aiming to launch Saturday, February 17th, but decided to delay in order to have more time to check on the rocket’s systems. The mission was then pushed to today, February 21st, so that the SpaceX team could have more time “to perform final checkouts of upgraded fairing,” the company said. The flight is slated to take off at 9:17AM ET on Thursday, and the timing may mean the rocket makes another show in the sky similar to the launch that freaked out Los Angeles in December. It’ll be going up right around sunrise in California, so the lighting at that time could illuminate the gas surrounding the rocket as it ascends, and SpaceX’s coverage should begin about 15 minutes before takeoff, so check back then to see what kind of sight this launch makes.