5 things to know about SpaceX's plan to create a space-based internet

SpaceX set to launch first round of satellites to create space-based internet

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - SpaceX is preparing to embark on a new endeavor to create a network of satellites and provide affordable high-speed internet around the world.

Elon Musk's company is preparing to launch the first round of 60 Starlink satellites from Cape Canaveral.

This is the heaviest payload ever for a SpaceX rocket weighing almost 19 tons.

[Click here for current launch information]

Musk said in a call with reporters ahead of the launch that the satellites wil begin deploying about one hour after launch. SpaceX will livestream the spacecraft deployment, and Musk said it may look a little different than other missions because there is no spring-based deployment mechanism.

As the 60 satellites slowly deploy, it will look like "spreading a deck of cards on a table," Musk said. There is expected to be some contact between the spacecraft but they are designed to handle it, he said.

Here's what to know about the importance of this launch for SpaceX and internet users:

Network of nearly 12,000 satellites

SpaceX has packed the Falcon 9 nosecone like a can of sardines with 60 Starlink satellites, but this launch is the first of many the company must deliver on to launch its full constellation of nearly 12,000 satellites.

Musk said he expects with 12 launches of 60 or more satellites the U.S. could have good internet coverage, and with 30, the entire world could have coverage.

The Federal Communications Commission has approved SpaceX's request to fly its network of Starlink satellites in low-Earth orbit in two constellations. The first round includes more than 4,400 satellites, and a second constellation will top 7,500 spacecraft.

“This approval underscores the FCC’s confidence in SpaceX’s plans to deploy its next-generation satellite constellation and connect people around the world with reliable and affordable broadband service," SpaceX Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell said in April after the approval to fly more than 1,500 satellites at an altitude of 550 kilometers.

Musk said that while SpaceX has only received approval in the U.S., it is also working with other countries.

The Starlink system is expected to cost more than $10 billion.

If successful, Musk said operating a space-based internet could provide the funding needed for SpaceX's interplanetary spaceship called Starship and eventually Mars colonization.

How will it work

SpaceX officials said the company will install visible gateways, called "Earth stations," around the world to ensure the satellites have a communications point during orbit.

An FCC request submitted by SpaceX shows the company could operate up to 100,000 Earth stations to communicate with SpaceX’s constellations. So far, the first six gateways have been approved by the FCC.

To get the full constellation in orbit, Musk said in a tweet that SpaceX will launch six times with 60 satellites "for minor coverage" and another 12 launches "for moderate" coverage.

Musk said the first round of Starlink satellites will be on a learning curve. Deploying dozens of spacecraft is risky for the satellites, for obvious reasons.

Within two to three hours after deployment SpaceX will know if the satellites survived.

"I do believe we will succeed, but it is far from a sure thing," Musk said Wednesday.

The satellites are manufactured in Redmore, Washington. Musk said a new batch is produced about every two weeks. It also costs less to build one than to launch a spacecraft, Musk said.

Musk said he can see 1,000 to 2,000 satellites launching a year and eventually, SpaceX satellites would total more than all other spacecraft in low-Earth orbit.

Big business of global internet 

Musk's company is one of several competing to provide global internet by a network of linked satellites.

OneWeb Satellites, which operates a manufacturing facility outside Kennedy Space Center's gates, recently launched its first batch of six satellites from French Guiana. 

OneWeb plans to keep launching batches of satellites until hundreds of them are in orbit. The first internet service could come online in 2020. By 2021, OneWeb plans to offer the first global, "5G ready" internet coverage anywhere on Earth, except Antarctica.

Amazon, Leosat, and Telesat are among the other companies also planning to launch networks of satellites to compete in this market.

SpaceX does have  an advantage because it can manufacture, launch and relaunch its rockets bringing down the cost of putting its satellites into orbit.

That's a lot of satellites. What about space debris?

SpaceX, OneWeb and other companies filing requests with the FCC must also provide a game plan to prevent their spacecraft from interfering with other spacecraft in operation and to explain the risk to humans on Earth should the spacecraft fail.

OneWeb expressed concern to the commission that SpaceX plans to orbit 1,500 Starlink satellites in the 550 kilometer orbit, which is populated by many small satellites and where OneWeb plans to deploy its own broadband satellites.

In response, SpaceX told the FCC operating satellites at that altitude -- approximately 340 miles above Earth -- will ensure a “100 percent success rate of post-mission disposal within five years, even assuming worst-case conditions."

Translation: The satellites are low enough that if they fail, the spacecraft will burn up reentering the Earth’s atmosphere. Musk said Wednesday the satellites are "designed to burn up" on reentry.

Musk said that while SpaceX does take “the space junk thing” seriously, space is very big.

As for other spacecraft in the same orbit, SpaceX told the FCC that because "all its satellites have propulsion and are maneuverable to prevent collisions, they are considered to pose zero risk to any other satellites in this orbital region.”

A "casualty risk assessment” by SpaceX shows that the risk of human casualties from the reentry of any one of its satellites meets or exceeds the NASA standard of 1 in 10,000 chance, according to the FCC approval.

"We don't anticipate this being a safety issue for people on the ground," Musk said.

What this will mean for you

Many communities around the U.S. and in the world still lack access to reliable internet. In the next few years, Starlink will mean better access for remote areas of the globe, which will enable those communities to participate in "economic, social and civic activities," according to an application from SpaceX to the FCC.

Eventually, more global internet providers should also mean more competing options for internet customers where traditionally there have been few.

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