On SpaceX Plans for a Satellite Constellation Delivering Global Communications 

SpaceX | Seattle

Without the media-frenzy and high-publicity factor that’s become emblematic of the likes of Tesla and SpaceX, Elon Musk’s enterprise has ventured into new technological territory. The latest manifestation of Musk’s vision to revolutionise the modern world – to develop a novel, next-generation network of satellites to support space-based internet communications.

We want to revolutionize the satellite side of things just as we’ve done with the rocket side of things

Although the satellite endeavour was announced on January 16 2015 by Musk, the new facility – ‘SpaceX Seattle’ – only opened this month in Redmont, Washington. The news isn’t entirely surprising – Musk tweeted about satellite endeavours last November and noted a forthcoming announcement.

That announcement came in January, at the private event of SpaceX back in January (Seattle, January 16). The meeting wasn’t open to the media, but at least one audience member uploaded a video of it at YouTube.

In opening, Musk hinted at revolutionising the satellite industry like SpaceX has done for rockets. And he referred to the new campus as a “focus for SpaceX satellite development activities” geared around introducing a huge satellite constellation to provide global internet communications.

The ‘global communications system’ is pitched to be capable of handling the majority of long-distance internet traffic, and some 10% local consumer and business traffic. Key to the system is that it promises to be faster than fiber-optic based communications (light travels at its fastest in the vacuum of space; some 40-50% faster than in fiber). Furthermore, with fewer ‘hops’ between routers, communications will be faster still.

Properly designed, it can give people gigabit-level access, 20-30 millisecond latency everywhere

The Seattle offices are reportedly already home to some 40 employees, but plan to grow to some 1000 persons in several years. Undoubtedly the location was chosen due of its being a hub of software, engineering, and other highly-specialised talent that SpaceX are recruiting to realise their ambitions.

Elon Musk (Founder and CEO of SpaceX)

Elon Musk (Founder and CEO of SpaceX) speaking at the private announcement of SpaceX Seattle in January.

Ultimately the goal is to put a swarm of “small-ish” satellites into orbit, that will provide communications capabilities far surpassing those of fiber-optic, terrestrial based internet communication systems relied upon today.

The planned super-network of satellites is big. Really big. Some 4000 satellites are envisioned to be set into orbit around the Earth – that’s more than double the number of operational satellites in orbit today. At an orbiting altitude of 1100km there’s not much else out there, so plenty space for the satellites.

There are advantages to having a large volume of satellites too. For one, it will enable global coverage. But perhaps more importantly, a super-sized array will add redundancy into the satellite network – if one satellite fails, its contributions to the collective system should be minimal.

…if you have a large constellation, you can afford to lose individual satellites, and it doesn’t affect the constellation very much.

…if a satellite didn’t work, you just basically take it out of the constellation and de-orbit it, as opposed to going through this super-intense procedure to make sure the satellite works.

Iridium Next Satellite concept

Concept of the Iridium NEXT satellite. Global internet coverage from satellite constellations isn’t in itself new – but how SpaceX are going about it may bring significant advantages.

The venture could grow to one of considerably consequence. It’s pitched not just to enhance communications where we used to having it, but to deliver capabilities to much of the world that remains unconnected.

A real enabler for people in poor nations in the world and it gives optionality for people in wealthier countries

Low-cost communications solutions for the developing, unconnected world could mean leap-frogging present-day technologies to next-generation ones; enabling much in the way of communication, education, and business infrastructure.

Closer to home, the technology will extend consumer choice via high-performance communications which will compete with entrenched, dominant telecoms providers.

Project costs unsurprisingly high: Musk said that, “Over time, to build a full version of the system, we’re talking about something that would be $10 or $15 billion to create, maybe more.”

Accordingly, SpaceX are looking to others to support the enterprise. A report emerged recently showing that Google is likely involved in making a large investment, supposedly upwards of $10 billion, to help fund the new satellite internet initiative (The Information). SpaceX and Google – a formidable alliance to say the least, but one that raises the curiosity given that Google are investing heavily in their own global internet campaign through Project Loon.

SpaceX won’t be lonely in their new industry. Communications is rife with existing companies, even a handful deeply invested in space-based systems. For instance, Iridium Communications already operate a satellite-based, global communications system of the sort SpaceX Seattle are now planning. Iridium’s existing satellite fleet delivers global coverage via 66 satellites, and they plan on beginning launches of a second generation fleet – NEXT – later this year. Beyond scale (and related advantages) however it’s unclear in what specific ways SpaceX plan on realising their ambitions – but we’ll be sure to follow it here at Phlebas.

 

Timeline

In presenting the plans, Musk was cautious in his estimation of a timeline: “Well, in the past I’ve been a little optimistic on schedule”. Nevertheless, he expects a first version providing global coverage operational in five years and successive versions thereafter. With respect to the longer term he said, “To get to where the system is really at its full capability is probably 12 to 15 years”.

 

Foundation for Missions to Mars

The system isn’t just for giving us a faster connection to the web – there are far grander plans at work here. The constellation is envisioned as a foundation for supporting mission communications between Earth and Mars – a critical technological feat which must be accomplished SpaceX (or anyone for that matter) are to be sending humans to the red planet.

We can look forward to hearing more about SpaceX’s plans for Mars in the near future – at the Seattle announcement, Musk hinted at a Earth-Mars “transport architecture” being presented soon.

On rationale for the constellation endeavour, and on shifting efforts from rockets to satellites, Musk said: “The satellites constitute as much or more of space-based activity as the rockets do. Very often satellites are more expensive than the rocket. So in order for us to really revolutionize space, we have to address both satellites and rockets. We’re going to start off building our own constellation of satellites,” 

Importantly too, revenue collected from the satellite venture is destined to finance early Mars related missions by SpaceX. For all the on-behalf-of-mankind nature of Musk’s other projects, he’s never shied away from frankness in stating that SpaceX has to turn a profit if it’s to succeed in its larger plans. And there’s little arguing that a plan to “back up humanity” is a costly affair.

The Falcon 9 fairing sits at the top of the rocket and houses satellites for delivery into orbit. It is 13.1m (43 ft) tall and 5.2m (17.1 ft) in diameter. 

The Falcon 9 fairing sits at the top of the rocket and houses satellites for delivery into orbit. It is 13.1m (43 ft) tall and 5.2m (17.1 ft) in diameter.

Knowing that SpaceX themselves will build, launch and operate the satellites, one of the most exciting aspects of the project is found in considering the implications of getting 4000 satellites into orbit. It means a lot of launches. Far more than has ever been seen in the history of space travel.

Multiple launches a month is therefore not just possible but indeed very likely the only solution. Since trashing rockets several times a month would get to being a costly affair somewhat precipitously, not to mention it’s being down right unsustainable, SpaceX’s ambitions for reusable rockets come sharply into focus as something not just economically minded, but essential on purely practical grounds too.

All things considered SpaceX Seattle stands to not only advance global communications, but to accelerate advent of a scenario in which spaceflight is no longer limited to being an infrequent event. Rather, it will become an act of common occurrence.

 

Sources

SpaceX Seattle announcement by Elon Musk – January 2015

Space News

Full transcript of the announcement from Geek Wire