Image Source: Starlink
There seems to be a new space race going on between major companies, this time its not really about who takes humans to the Moon first - the race is to build a mega constellation of satellites. Companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX, Jeff Bezos' Amazon, Planet Labs, OneWeb, among others, are all competing for space in low Earth orbit (pun intended).
Last year, Amazon announced its intention to create their own satellite internet constellation that would total 3,236 satellites, they haven't disclosed when they would initiate deployment. OneWeb has already launched the first satellites in their quest to deploy 2,500. And as of a couple of days ago, Planet Labs used to be the largest constellation with a network of 150 Earth imaging satellites in orbit.
SpaceX joined the space race, stating that they plan to build a constellation of satellites that will beam low-latency, high-speed broadband internet to ground terminal devices via their new Starlink network. All in an effort to further fund their space program by offering internet services. The space program includes sending the first missions to build a permanent base on the Moon, as well as colonizing Mars. SpaceX's constellation will be composed of approximately 12,000 Starlink satellites, capable of beaming their signal at the speed of light to areas on Earth where internet is non-existent, too expensive, or unreliable. Starlink satellites are relatively small compared to others in orbit. The unit is about the size of an office desk, featuring a single solar array and flat panel antennas.
The founder and CEO of SpaceX, Musk, said last year that Starlink would be "economically viable" at 1,000 satellites, that reaching 12,000 satellites would be a "very successful outcome" for Starlink. The company has filed regulatory paperwork with the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union to obtain final approval for an additional 30,000 satellites. SpaceX stated:
"As demand escalates for fast, reliable internet around the world, especially for those where connectivity is nonexistent, too expensive or unreliable, SpaceX is taking steps to responsibly scale Starlink’s total network capacity and data density to meet the growth in users’ anticipated needs."
Joining the internet industry could give SpaceX an estimated revenue of about $10 billion annually if they have a continual user base of 14 million people, according to Forbes.
SpaceX successfully deployed two batches of 60 satellites in May and November 2019. On Monday, January 6, SpaceX surpassed Planet Labs' satellite constellation, after launching another 60 Starlink satellites into orbit atop their Falcon 9 rocket. Now, SpaceX has a total of 180 Starlink satellites (plus two prototypes launched two years ago) orbiting Earth. Starlink became the world's largest broadband internet satellite constellation this week!
Successful deployment of 60 Starlink satellites confirmed! pic.twitter.com/hA8eUp7dNI— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 7, 2020
The third batch of 60 satellites was deployed into a 290 kilometer orbit where engineers will inspect them from ground stations before raising them to their final orbit, which is an altitude of 550 kilometers. That altitude is a suggested guideline from NASA to avoid creating space debris, if any satellites stop working properly they will eventually deorbit into Earth's atmosphere to completely burn within 25 years. SpaceX stated their satellites will have a life span of 1 to 5 years, each satellite is equipped with krypton powered ion thrusters that can be used to steer it to burn up in our atmosphere when one is no longer useful. Their first 1,584 satellites will all be deployed at 550 kilometers.
In December 2019, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved a SpaceX request to expand their Starlink satellites into more orbital rings, in order to begin operations mid-year. Starlink will be deployed into 72 orbital rings, each ring would have 22 satellites. Spacing the satellites 22 per orbital ring instead of their initial plan of 66 per ring "accelerates the process of deploying satellites covering a wider service area," SpaceX stated. It enables them to deploy less satellites and offer more global coverage because the satellites would now be covering more areas around the planet. Under this new plan, a single Falcon 9 rocket launch can fill up about three orbital rings. SpaceX told the FCC on August 30, 2019:
"The proposed respacing would require fewer launches of satellites — perhaps as few as half — to initiate service to the entire contiguous United States; Globally, the modification would enable more rapid coverage of all longitudes to grow toward the Equator, as well as bolstering capacity over in areas of greater population density."
By increasing the number of orbital rings where these first Starlink satellites would operate, SpaceX said they could achieve enough internet coverage to provide service by hurricane season in southern United States. Internet from satellites does come in handy for emergency services during natural disasters when communication systems' cables and towers get damaged.
SpaceX’s President said in September last year that they plan to conduct as many as 24 Starlink launches in 2020, carrying 60 satellites per mission.