Starlink satellite deployment

It’s been three months since SpaceX launched the first prototype satellites for its Starlink broadband internet network, and there’s been precious little information about what they’re up to. Until today.

Responding to a follower’s Twitter inquiry, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk assessed how the twin satellites, dubbed Tintin A and B, are doing:

The “pretty good” assessment sounds like pretty good news for the SpaceX satellite development team that’s based in Redmond, Wash. The satellites are equipped with flat phased-array antennas that are designed to stay in contact with a series of ground stations as they fly in low Earth orbit.

Based on filings with the Federal Communications Commission, ground stations have been placed in spots such as SpaceX’s facilities in Redmond and Brewster, Wash.; at the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif.; at rocket test facilities in Texas; and at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, Calif.

Satellite internet is nothing new, of course. But in the past, such services have been provided through geostationary satellite networks that have a noticeable lag time, in the neighborhood of hundreds of milliseconds. That makes a noticeable difference for real-time, two-way communication.

As Musk notes, Starlink’s 25-millisecond latency would make playing video games via satellite internet a lot less laggy. But the main benefit would be to provide low-cost broadband access to areas of the world that can’t get it right now because of a lack of on-the-ground infrastructure.

Starlink satellites
SpaceX’s Tintin satellites serve as prototypes for the Starlink constellation. (SpaceX via YouTube)

If SpaceX can capture that market, broadband services could contribute tens of billions to the company’s bottom line annually — providing the cash to fund Musk’s ambitions of sending scads of settlers to Mars and making humanity a multiplanet species.

Trademark filings indicate that the satellites could offer Earth imaging and remote sensing as well as telecommunications.

In an interview that aired this week on CNBC, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, said the Starlink constellation should be quite successful, “assuming we get the physics right as well as the business right.”

Musk’s positive comments are short on detail, due no doubt to Twitter’s character limits, but they imply that no showstoppers have been encountered on the physics side of the equation.

When it comes to the business case, SpaceX could face a formidable phalanx of telecom competitors — including the low-Earth-orbit constellations being planned by such ventures as OneWeb and Telesat; SES’ O3b medium-Earth-orbit constellation; and ViaSat’s geostationary-based broadband network.

Just a couple of months ago, a startup called Astranis entered the fray with plans to put small-scale broadband satellites into geostationary orbit, one satellite at a time.

SpaceX’s plans call for launching thousands of satellites and starting up commercial service sometime in the next few years. Other ventures could put up thousands more satellites — raising the stakes for policymakers who already see the need to upgrade the world’s space traffic management system.

So when will the satellite rush begin in earnest? Stay tuned for the next tweet.