SpaceX Wants Everyone on Earth to Have Cheap Fast Internet
Starting in 2019, SpaceX plans to launch thousands of satellites into low-Earth orbit. Together, the armada network hubs will blanket the planet in cheap, fast, low-latency satellite internet. At least that’s what SpaceX told the Senate Commerce Committee yesterday. It’s ambitious, to be sure, but if it works, we could see a dramatic shift in global high-speed internet access.If you’ve ever had satellite internet, you probably think this is bunk. Satellite internet is notoriously slow. SpaceX plans to solve the problem by making the network tighter and using custom-made machines.Patricia Cooper, the company’s VP of Government Affairs attended the hearing, stating that they will start testing their tech later this year.“Following successful demonstration of the technology,” Cooper said, “SpaceX intends to begin the operational satellite launch campaign in 2019. The remaining satellites in the constellation will be launched in phases through 2024 when the system will reach full capacity with the Ka- and Ku-Band satellites. SpaceX intends to launch the system onboard our Falcon 9 rocket, leveraging significant launch cost savings afforded by the first stage reusability now demonstrated with the vehicle.”Once complete, the satellites will all sit just a few hundred miles up — stunningly close given that most other communications satellites are more than 20,000 miles away. That really matters because even though light is stupid-fast, signals have to the hub, get processed and forwarded to another satellite and then go back down. That adds a few tenths of a second. Not much, but enough that anything requiring two-way communication, like a competitive game, will suffer as a result of the delay.Sounds great, right? So what’s the catch? Well… there’s a lot.For starters, this would quadruple the number of operational satellites orbiting our little blue ball. And if you’ve been keeping with space news, you know that’s a problem. There’s only so many places for satellites to be above Earth. It sounds silly, but it’s true.GPS, for example, has to be able to “see” you to be effective. And there’s only so many orbital positions where that works. Many are at geostationary orbits, meaning that they always face the same part of Earth. That’s great for consistent connections, but that adds even more, problems — there’s only a narrow shell of space where you can make a geostationary flight path work. Outside that band, and you have to start looking at all the other flight paths of all the other gadgets whizzing around us. Plus, you’ll have to make sure you’re not running into any of the space junk we’ve left out there from any of our previous launches.Humans are a messy bunch, and everywhere we go, we leave garbage. Early missions didn’t usually take this into consideration, and they just tossed crap out into space right above is. There’s now tons and tons of the stuff of the up there, and if you’ve seen Gravity, you know that even something the size of a grain of rice could rip right through just about anything we send up because it’ll be zipping by at tens of thousands of miles per hour.Cooper’s Senate hearing was, in part, a plea to loosen regulations on where satellites can go and for the company to be included in future government-led infrastructure plans.If the system ever goes live, it’ll basically operate like a turbo-charged mesh-based, wireless networks, like those you’d get with Plume or Google WiFi. The system will dynamically shift resources wherever they’re needed to keep everyone running smoothly. It should also offer latencies as low as 25 milliseconds — or roughly comparable to most high-end cable networks. SpaceX also claims it can push a gigabit or more downstream. And that would put it in the same tier as services like Google Fiber or Verizon’s FiOS network. Then again, we won’t be able to take full advantage of that until the 2020s. And who knows if any of us will still be here then, given the current political climate.