SpaceX is planning to launch the first in a vast network of Internet satellites in 2019, as it aims to bring web access to the whole world.
At the US Senate in Washington DC yesterday, SpaceX’s vice president of satellite government affairs, Patricia Cooper, told a committee that one prototype satellite would launch this year, and another next year, before the first operational satellite in 2019. The whole network, consisting of a whopping 4,425 satellites, will then come online in 2024.
“SpaceX plans to bring high-speed, reliable, and affordable broadband service to consumers in the U.S. and around the world, including areas underserved or currently unserved by existing networks,” Cooper said in a statement.
The satellites will orbit Earth in 83 different orbital planes, which will range in altitude from 1,110 to 1,325 kilometers (690 to 825 miles). For reference, the International Space Station (ISS) in low Earth orbit is at 400 kilometers (250 miles).
The Internet will then be “beamed” to the ground, with consumers using a user terminal the size of a laptop – which SpaceX describes as a “small flat panel” – to connect to the Internet. In space, the satellites will create a mesh network to supply a continuous service on the ground.
The speed of this Internet will be somewhere between modern cable and fiber optic. SpaceX, however, said the software on the satellites could be upgraded from the ground to improve the service over time and ensure it’s not redundant after a few years.
There are quite a few things we don’t know yet, however, not least how big the satellites will be and what they’ll look like. And concerns have also been raised about the amount of debris this will add to Earth orbit.
Currently, there are about 1,459 satellites in orbit of Earth. SpaceX is planning to launch triple this, leading some to invoke thoughts of a Kessler syndrome event. This is a theory that debris in orbit can create a cascading effect if it starts colliding, making regions of Earth’s orbit impossible to access.
There are solutions to this, though. There are a variety of novel plans to remove debris from orbit, including using nets or tethers. And satellites must be de-orbited after 25 years at any rate, although one expert recently suggested this should be reduced to five.
Nonetheless, SpaceX’s plans are bold. They’ll need to be launching hundreds of these satellites every year to have a chance of getting it up and running in 2024. That's pretty ambitious.