SpaceX is on a collision course with the world's biggest telecom and satellite manufacturing companies, as it steps up development of its "Starlink" network of satellites.
The company will soon test its first satellites, Microsat 2a and 2b, which are headed for orbit aboard SpaceX's Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, according to documents filed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). These satellites will take the next step into space, which is critical for the network's progress.
On Saturday, SpaceX scrapped plans to launch on Sunday, in the interest of performing "final checks', and rescheduled for February 21st. However, the company's big ambitions remain on track.
Starlink – a name SpaceX filed to trademark last year – is an ambition unmatched by any current satellite network. The largest existing constellation is built by Iridium, with the company halfway through launching its new 75 Iridium Next satellites to space, set to finish deployment in the next year.
The stakes are high, with a space race for a new era viewed as a linchpin to help make life better here on earth. According to the FCC there are about 14 million rural Americans, as well as 1.2 million Americans on tribal lands, who do not have access to even the slowest mobile broadband services.
If realized, SpaceX's satellite constellation would transform a traditionally high-cost, low-reliability service. The space industry is estimated to expand rapidly over the next three decades, with the satellite internet sector anticipated to grow at an exponential rate.
SpaceX will begin launching an initial constellation of 4,425 Ka/Ku band [a term that indicates range on the electromagnetic spectrum] low Earth orbit satellites in 2019, with the system becoming operational once at least 800 satellites are deployed, the FCC documents show. The two test satellites will orbit about 700 miles above the Earth, in the same range as the eventual constellation.
Starlink will offer broadband speeds comparable to fiber optic networks, according to FCC documents, by essentially creating a blanket connection across the electromagnetic spectrum. The satellites would offer new direct to consumer wireless connections, rather the present system's redistribution of signals.
The project is currently under consideration by the FCC. On Thursday, it received backing from FCC chairman Ajit Pai, who said that Starlink would be "on such innovation … to provide high-speed internet to rural Americans." The license would give SpaceX six years to deploy all the satellites, although the FCC is also looking at a petition from SpaceX to waive the time constraint.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has touted Starlink's reach, saying it could bring 5G-like service to billions around the world while also handling up to 10 percent of the internet traffic in more congested regions "where people are stuck with Time Warner or Comcast."
Starlink would be a "real enabler for people in poorer regions of the world," Musk has said.
The Microsat 2a and 2b satellites will validate the design and functionality of the platform over an anticipated 20 months of testing. Weighing just under 900 pounds each, the SpaceX satellites are also much smaller than some of the multi-ton behemoths currently in service. SpaceX will also test six fixed-position ground stations and three mobile ground stations, located across the U.S.