SpaceX satellite constellation

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

The SpaceX satellite constellation is a development project underway by SpaceX to develop a low-cost, high-performance satellite bus and requisite customer ground transceivers to be used to implement a new space-based internet communication system.[1][2]

SpaceX has plans to also sell satellites that use the same satellite bus, satellites that might be used for scientific or exploratory purposes.[3]

Development began in 2015, initial prototype test-flight satellites are expected to be flown in 2017,[1] and initial operation of the constellation could begin as early as 2020.


The communication satellite network SpaceX envisions was publicly announced in January 2015, with the projected capability of supporting the bandwidth to carry up to 50 percent of all backhaul communications traffic and up to 10 percent of local internet traffic in high-density cities.[2][3] CEO Elon Musk believes that there is significant unmet demand for low-cost global broadband capabilities.[4]

The opening of a new SpaceX satellite development facility, located in Redmond, Washington, was announced by SpaceX in January 2015, to build the new communication network. As of January 2015, the Seattle-area office planned to initially hire approximately 60 engineers, with the potential to increase to 1000 people in the next several years.[5] There were 45 open positions in October 2015,[6] the company was operating in 2,800 square meters (30,000 sq ft) of leased space by late 2016, and by January 2017 had taken on a 3,800 square meters (40,625 sq ft) facility, both in Redmond.[7]

As of June 2015, the company planned to have two prototype satellites flying in 2016,[8] and have the initial satellite constellation in orbit and operational by approximately 2020.[3] However, by October 2016, design changes had obviated the original two test satellites, and the launch of two revised satellites had slipped to 2017.[1][9]

In July 2016, SpaceX acquired a 740 square meters (8,000 sq ft) creative space in Irvine, CA (Orange County).[10] SpaceX job listings indicate the office will include signal processing, RFIC, and ASIC development for the satellite program.[11]

By October 2016, SpaceX had developed test-flight satellites that they hope to launch in 2017 and they are focusing on a significant business challenge of achieving a sufficiently-low-cost design for the user equipment, aiming for something that can ostensibly install easily at end-user premises for approximately US$200. Overall, Shotwell said the project "remains in the design phase as the company seeks to tackle issues related to user-terminal cost."[1] Deployment, if carried out, would not be until "late in this decade or early in the next."[4]

In November, 2016, SpaceX filed an application with the FCC for a "non-geostationary orbit satellite system in the Fixed-Satellite Service using the Ku and Ka frequency bands."[12]

In March 2017, SpaceX filed with the FCC plans to field a constellation of more than 7500 "V-band satellites in non-geosynchronous orbits to provide communications services" in an electromagnetic spectrum that has not previously been "heavily employed for commercial communications services." Called the "V-band low-Earth orbit (VLEO) constellation," it would consist of "7,518 satellites to follow the [earlier] proposed 4,425 satellites that would function in Ka- and Ku-band.[13] The March 2017 plan calls for SpaceX to launch test satellites of the type in both 2017 and 2018, and as of May 2017, begin launching the operational constellation sats in 2019. Full build-out of the constellation is not expected to be completed until 2024, at which time there are expected to be "4,425 satellites into orbit around the Earth, operating in 83 planes, at fairly low altitudes of between 1,110 kilometers and 1,325 kilometers."[14]

Some controversy has arisen in 2015–2017 with regulatory authorities on licensing the communications spectrum for these large constellations of satellites. The traditional and historical regulatory rule for satellites licensing comm spectrum has been that satellite operators could "launch a single spacecraft to meet their in-service deadline [from the regulator], a policy seen as allowing an operator to block the use valuable radio spectrum for years without deploying its fleet."[15] The US regulatory authority has set a six-year deadline to have an entire large constellation deployed to comply with licensing terms, the international regulator, the ITU, has proposed by mid-2017 an international guideline that would be considerably less restrictive. As of September 2017, both Boeing and SpaceX have petitioned the US FCC for a waiver of the 6-year rule.[15]


Global broadband internet[edit]

Two space entrepreneurs announced internet satellite ventures in the same week; in addition to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announcing this project, serial-entrepreneur Richard Branson announced an investment in OneWeb, a similar constellation with approximately 700 satellites that has already procured communication frequency licenses for their broadcast spectrum.[5][16]

After the failure of previous satellite-to-consumer space ventures, satellite industry consultant Roger Rusch said "It's highly unlikely that you can make a successful business out of this."[5] Musk has publicly acknowledged this business reality, and indicated in mid-2015 that while endeavoring to develop this technically-complicated space-based communication system he wants to avoid overextending the company and stated that they are being measured in the pace of development.[17]

In February 2015, financial analysts questioned established geosynchronous orbit communications satellite fleet operators as to how they intend to respond to the competitive threat of SpaceX/Google and OneWeb LEO communication satellites.[18] In October, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell indicated that while development continues the business case for the long-term rollout of an operational satellite network is still in an early phase.[6]

In 2015, court documents indicate that SpaceX had engaged in collaboration with wireless chip-maker Broadcom. Five key engineers subsequently left to join SpaceX leading to a lawsuit filed by Broadcom alleging that "SpaceX stole our best minds." In March, an Orange County judge denied Broadcom's multiple restraining order requests.[19]

Extending to use beyond Earth[edit]

Longer-term, SpaceX intends to develop and deploy a version of the satellite communication system that would be used at Mars; in the mid-term, SpaceX is interested in the satcomm system on Earth generating revenue that would be helpful in providing capital for the company's Mars transport project.[4]

Internet communication satellite characteristics[edit]

The internet communication satellites are expected to be in the smallsat-class of 100-to-500 kg (220-to-1,100 lb)-mass, which are intended to be orbiting at an altitude of approximately 1,100 kilometers (680 mi). Initial plans as of January 2015 are for the constellation to be made up of approximately 4000 cross-linked[17] satellites, more than twice as many operational satellites as are in orbit in January 2015.[3]

The satellites would be mass-produced, at much lower cost per unit of capability than existing satellites. Musk said "We’re going to try and do for satellites what we’ve done for rockets."[20] "In order to revolutionize space, we have to address both satellites and rockets."[3] "Smaller satellites are crucial to lowering the cost of space-based Internet and communications."[5]

In February 2015, SpaceX asked the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to consider future innovative uses of the Ka-band spectrum before the FCC commits to 5G communications regulations that would create barriers to entry, since SpaceX is a new entrant to the satellite communications market. The SpaceX non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) communications satellite constellation will operate in the high frequency bands above 24 GHz, "where steerable earth station transmit antennas would have a wider geographic impact and significantly lower satellite altitudes magnify the impact of aggregate interference from terrestrial transmissions."[21]

The system will not compete with Iridium satellite constellation, which is designed to link directly to handsets. Instead, it will be linked to flat user terminals the size of a pizza box, which will have phased array antennas and track the satellites, the terminals can be mounted anywhere, as long as they can see the sky.[17]

Prototype development and testing[edit]

SpaceX plans to begin flight testing of their satellite technologies in 2017,[1] with the planned launch of two test satellites, MicroSat-1a and MicroSat-1b. The satellites will orbit in a circular low Earth orbit at 625 kilometers (388 mi) altitude in a high-inclination orbit for a planned six to twelve-month duration. The sats will communicate with three testing ground stations in Washington and California for short-term experiments of less than ten minutes duration, roughly daily.[8][22] Both microsats will be launched into 625 km circular orbits at approximately 86.4 degrees inclination, and will include panchromatic video imager cameras to film image of Earth and the satellite.[23]

MicroSat-1a and 1b were planned, as of June 2015, to be the first of up to eight[23] prototype sats to be flown before deployment of the operational constellation,[24] at the time of the June 2015 announcement, SpaceX had originally planned to launch the first two demonstration satellites in 2016,[8] before that target date was subsequently moved out to 2017.[1]


In addition to the OneWeb constellation, announced nearly concurrently with the SpaceX constellation, a 2015 proposal from Samsung has outlined a 4600-satellite constellation orbiting at 1,400 kilometers (900 mi) that could bring 200 gigabytes per month of internet data to "each of the world's 5 billion people".[25][26] However, this proposal has not yet advanced to full development.

See also[edit]

  • Globalstar - a low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellation for satellite phone and low-speed data communications
  • Iridium satellite constellation – an operational constellation of 66 active satellites used to provide global satellite phone service
  • ORBCOMM – an operational constellation used to provide global asset monitoring and messaging services from its constellation of 29 LEO communications satellites orbiting at 775 km
  • Teledesic – a former (1990s) venture to accomplish broadband satellite internet services
  • ViaSat Communications – operates an existing operational satellite internet service
  • OneWeb satellite constellation – a proposed satellite constellation to provide global internet broadband service to individual consumers as early as 2019


  1. ^ a b c d e f de Selding, Peter B. (2016-10-05). "SpaceX’s Shotwell on Falcon 9 inquiry, discounts for reused rockets and Silicon Valley’s test-and-fail ethos". SpaceNews. Retrieved 2016-10-08. 
  2. ^ a b Gates, Dominic (16 January 2015). "Elon Musk touts launch of ‘SpaceX Seattle’". Seattle Times. Retrieved 19 January 2015. 
  3. ^ a b c d e SpaceX Seattle 2015, 16 January 2015.
  4. ^ a b c Foust, Jeff (2016-10-10). "Shotwell says SpaceX "homing in" on cause of Falcon 9 pad explosion". SpaceNews. Retrieved 2016-10-16. 
  5. ^ a b c d Petersen, Melody (16 January 2015). "Elon Musk and Richard Branson invest in satellite-Internet ventures". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 19 January 2015. 
  6. ^ a b SpaceX’s Gwynne Shotwell signals go-slow approach for Seattle satellite plan, Alan Boyle, 27 October 2015, retrieved 2015-10-28.
  7. ^
  8. ^ a b c Boyle, Alan (2015-06-04). "How SpaceX Plans to Test Its Satellite Internet Service in 2016". NBC News. Retrieved 5 June 2015. 
  9. ^ "SpaceX FCC Application Technical Application - QUESTION 7: PURPOSE OF EXPERIMENT". 
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^ "FCC SELECTED APPLICATION LISTING File Number = SATLOA2016111500118". International Bureau Application Filing and Reporting System. FCC. 2016-11-15. Retrieved 2016-11-22. 
  13. ^
  14. ^ [1]
  15. ^ a b
  16. ^ Fernholz, Tim (2015-06-24). "Inside the race to create the next generation of satellite internet". Quartz. Retrieved 2016-10-18. 
  17. ^ a b c Elon Musk, Mike Suffradini (7 July 2015). Elon Musk comments on Falcon 9 explosion - Huge Blow for SpaceX (2015.7.7) (video). Event occurs at 46:45–50:40. Retrieved 2015-12-30. 
  18. ^ de Selding, Peter B. (23 February 2015). "Wall Street Grills Fleet Operators Over Mega-Constellation Threat". Space News. Retrieved 24 February 2015. 
  19. ^ ‘SpaceX Stole Our Best Minds’: Chip-Maker Sues Elon Musk Startup
  20. ^ Hull, Dana; Johnsson, Julie (14 January 2015). "SpaceX chief Elon Musk has high hopes for Seattle office". Seattle Times. Retrieved 19 January 2015. 
  21. ^ Alleven, Monica (2015-02-22). "In 5G proceeding, SpaceX urges FCC to protect future satellite ventures". FierceWirelessTech. Retrieved 3 March 2015. SpaceX pointed out that it recently announced plans to build a network of 4,000 non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) communications satellites, which it will manufacture, launch and operate. 
  22. ^
  23. ^ a b
  24. ^ Kokalitcheva, Kia (2015-06-03). "SpaceX Has a Radical New Invention Idea". Time. Retrieved 6 June 2015. 
  25. ^ Gershgorn, Dave (2015-08-17). "Samsung Wants To Blanket The Earth In Satellite Internet". Popular Science. Retrieved 2015-08-21. 
  26. ^ Khan, Farooq (2015). "Mobile Internet from the Heavens" (PDF). Retrieved 2015-08-21. 

External links[edit]