U.S. Air Force assesses SpaceX Starlink on Aircraft to enhance operations

Evelyn Arevalo by Evelyn Arevalo August 15, 2020

U.S. Air Force assesses SpaceX Starlink on Aircraft to enhance operations

Featured Image Source: C-12J Huron / U.S. Army / Wikipedia

SpaceX is deploying Starlink satellites into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to offer low latency, broadband internet globally. The Starlink network will provide SpaceX with additional funding to develop a fleet of Starships that will enable life on other planets.

The United States Air Force signed a deal with SpaceX valued at around $28 million in 2018, to conduct experiments and assess the Starlink network’s performance. The military wants to see how space-based internet can enhance Multi-Domain Operations. These operations will require moving vast quantities of data between the five domains of warfare: at sea, the air, in outer space, and cyberspace. Therefore, the military needs a reliable communication system to protect and defend the country from potential threats. The assessment of Starlink will offer the military insight on whether it should purchase Starlink service long-term.

SpaceX is working with the Air Force's Research Laboratory to connect the Starlink satellites with ground stations and terminals hooked to military aircraft. The President of SpaceX Gwynne Shotwell said last year – “We are delivering high bandwidth into the cockpit of Air Force planes [...] Right now we're just testing the capability and figuring out how to make it work.” The Air Force tested Starlink via terminals fixed on a C-12J Heron transport plane. Program officials said the tests have demonstrated significantly higher internet connection and data-transfer rates than what Air Force aircraft can currently receive. Shotwell said the Starlink broadband network delivered high-speed internet connectivity of 610 megabits-per-second (Mbps), equivalent to a gigabyte every ~13 seconds. The military has conducted several tests since the deal was signed and expects the first round of testing to be completed by mid-June next year.

SpaceX recently filed another request with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that suggests it plans to continue assessing Starlink's connection with the Air Force. FCC document reveals engineers will connect the satellites to terminals on flying aircraft – “to demonstrate the ability to transmit and receive information between five ground sites (Ground-to-Ground) and between four ground sites and an airborne aircraft (Ground-to-Air).”

SpaceX is requesting the Commission to grant it a 6-month window starting in September, to start the assessment. SpaceX is seeking to use -“New experimental [frequencies] in 14-14.5 GHz, 27.95-29.1 GHz and 29.5-30 GHz to use an Earth station to transmit signals to the SpaceX satellites first from a fixed position on the ground and later from a moving aircraft, and to operate two gateways to complete the link,” the filing reads.

SpaceX plans to use 20 antennas to connect Air Force aircraft to Starlink. SpaceX manufactured 18 of the antennas and 2 are manufactured by Ball Aerospace, according to Wccftech reporters. These antennas will be attached to the aircraft to assess Starlink’s broadband internet performance in motion.

Besides the military’s assessment, there is an active private Starlink beta test among company employees to assess the network, and a public beta testing phase will soon be offered to potential customers living in high-latitudes. SpaceX says it “invested over $70 million developing and producing thousands of consumer user terminals per month,” and that is “now building 120 satellites per month.” To date, SpaceX has deployed 595 internet-beaming Starlink satellites out of the 12,000 it aims to launch.

Previous  / Next