The details behind SpaceX’s ambitious satellite internet experiment

On a mission.
On a mission.
Image: AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu
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New details have emerged about SpaceX’s ambitious plans to launch a huge constellation of micro-satellites designed to provide internet service here on Earth.

CEO Elon Musk first announced the effort last fall, amid a boon in attention to satellite internet from major Silicon Valley companies—despite a broad history of busts in the business from tech and communications moguls of all stripes. Now, Google and Facebook are out of the internet space race, but entrepreneur Greg Wyler’s OneWeb is still pushing ahead, as is Musk’s SpaceX.

In a filing (pdf) with the Federal Communications Commission requesting an experimental license, SpaceX described a plan to launch six to eight satellites next year to begin testing for ”a large constellation of small satellites for low-latency, worldwide, high-capacity Internet service in the near future.”

The company wants to start with two identical microsats, launched on its flagship Falcon 9 rocket. The satellites will communicate on high-frequency Ku-satellite spectrum to reach three ground stations on the west coast of the US—SpaceX operations in Los Angeles and Redmond, Washington, and at Tesla Motors (Musk’s other company) in Fremont, California—in order to test the broadband antennas built into the satellites.

The satellites will orbit at an altitude of 650 kilometers, about 150 km closer to Earth than most other communications satellites, which is one way that SpaceX hopes to reduce the lag between data transmission and reception. The company forecasts spending about 10 minutes of every day conducting test link-ups with the satellites, which can transmit both video and telemetry data.

The primary reason for the filing with the FCC is to assure the government that these tests will not interfere with other communications broadcasts. Such licenses are typically approved or denied within six weeks.

Should the tests planned for next year get approved and then succeed, the company would still face several challenges when it comes to deploying a fully functioning satellite internet network. It would need to secure usage rights to the appropriate satellite spectrum, for starters, as well as build, launch, and operate what could be the largest satellite constellation ever.

But Musk has high hopes, reportedly telling a group of potential employees at an informal presentation that he wants the network to handle as much as 10% of internet traffic in densely populated areas. And, as always with Musk, there is a Mars angle: There would, after all, need to be more communications infrastructure in space to support a future colony on the red planet.

The FCC and SpaceX declined to comment for this story.