Starlink Requests Lower Orbits

maxresdefaultSpaceX has received FCC permission to launch 4,425 Starlink communications satellites between 1,110 and 1,325 km in altitude. SpaceX in a new filing is now requesting that 1,584 of those satellites be allowed at lower orbits of 550 km. Satellites at that orbit are at the upper reaches of the atmosphere and have naturally decaying orbits over several years. Starlink satellites at that elevation would therefore be easier to decommission. Satellites that fail would also fall into the atmosphere naturally.

When SpaceX received initial FCC approval, the permission was contingent upon SpaceX providing updated satellite decommissioning plans. The FCC is concerned about space debris. This new orbital plan by SpaceX may address some FCC concerns.

SpaceX’s two current test satellites, TinTin A and B, were launched into the lower orbits but expected to be boosted to higher orbits. That boost hasn’t happened, leading some observers to question whether the satellites failed. In fact SpaceX may be studying the lower orbits in greater detail.

Lower orbits would represent faster communications speeds, with latencies as low as 15 ms. Satellites would also potentially cover less of the planets surface, which would require modifications to their design.

More detailed reporting of SpaceX’s updated FCC filing is provided by The Verge.

Starlink’s Next Funder: DARPA?

darpa logoSpaceX has posted a number of new job openings that suggest it may be developing a classified satellite network. As reported in Teslarati, the new positions require technical skills involving low-cost satellite networks but also require top secret clearances.

One reasonable explanation for these new job openings would be that the US Government is exploring new approaches to satellite networks. DARPA has previously announced funding of up to $117 million for the Blackjack program, seeking to place 20 test satellites in orbit.

SpaceX has announced current plans to raise $750 million in debt financing to support next generation rocket development as well as the Starlink program. It appears SpaceX might have its eyes on additional Starlink funding from government sources.

Single Purpose Internet Devices

fOne enormous challenge for first-time users of the internet in developing countries is knowing what the internet is and does. If you have always lived in a technology-free environment, how are you supposed to understand, say, the Android apps on Google Play?

One solution will be the design of single purpose internet devices. Imagine a smart speaker that only tells you the weather, or a tablet that only shows football matches.

A good example of a single purpose internet device is now rolling out in the US. Facebook has launched “Portal“, a videoconferencing system that only allows calling to other Facebook users. You plug it in, link to wifi, link to Facebook, and start requesting calls. The device is powered by complex technology, including Alexa, and has a number of sophisticated design features, such as tracking your movements around a room. It only has one purpose, however: videoconference with others on Facebook.

Does some of this raise privacy issues or other objections? Probably. But the device is easy to use, and that alone may drive its popularity. Simplicity of this sort will be a precondition for internet devices across much of the planet.

Starlink Management Shakeup Points to Agressive Timelines

maxresdefaultReuters is reporting that the SpaceX Starlink program, based in Redmond, Washington, underwent a major management shakeup in June with the goal of speeding the development process of a next generation of internet satellites. According to the report, seven senior managers were fired by Elon Musk with replacements provided by SpaceX headquarters in California.

Starlink, which is in heated competition with other internet satellite initiatives, seeks to launch its next round of satellites in mid-2019. Starlink is currently studying two test satellites in orbit which have proven their ability to stream high-definition video. Among other tests, engineers in Hawthorne, California have competed with engineers in Redmond playing “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” as the satellites pass overhead.

SpaceX seeks to grow the Starlink initiative in order to, among other things, help fund the next generation BFR rocket. The Satellite Industry Association estimates global broadband as a $128 billion annual market, compared to approximately $6 billion annual market for satellite launch services.

Starlink still aspires to launch 4,425 satellites into low earth orbit over the next several years.

Viasat

int_vsat_tm_rgb_grdIn the rush towards low earth orbit satellite constellations by SpaceX and others, some traditional satellite broadband providers are receiving limited attention. This may be an oversight. Viasat, which provides broadband services in North America and some other regions, has plans to launch three high capacity geosynchronous satellites between 2019 and 2021 which will bathe the globe in broadband. In their own words, Viasat will “likely become the world’s first global broadband provider.”

The three ViaSat-3 satellites each will have the network capacity comparable to the total of “the approximately 400 commercial communications satellites in space today”.

Viasat hasn’t revealed prices for future services, including in developing countries. Current US broadband services range from $70 to $150 per month depending on bandwidth.

Military Studying Satellite Constellations

darpa logoThe Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has announced plans to launch 20 test satellites into low earth orbit. The program, called Blackjack, will test prototype spy satellites, aiming for the first 20 to be in orbit by 2021.

One goal of the program is to reduce costs of satellites, from approximately $1 billion for current geosynchronous satellites to about $6 million for individual low earth orbit satellites. A satellite constellation in theory will be both more effective and harder for adversaries to defeat.

The Blackjack program plans to award $117 million in contracts to aerospace companies developing satellite bus technologies. Future awards will be for other design aspects and launch services for the new networks.

New Details about SpaceX Starlink

maxresdefaultThe SpaceX Starlink program seeks to launch over 4,000 low earth orbit satellites to provide broadband coverage across the planet. The project is relatively secretive, so analysts review whatever information comes available.

Earlier this month, a Starlink patent application was published online describing a new low-cost, easy to manufacture approach to phased array antennas. The antenna technology for the network will be critical in allowing fast-moving satellites to communicate effective with ground stations and with each other.

The technical filing also reportedly details a new integrated circuit design used for processing on board communications.

In June Elon Musk tweeted that latency of the two test satellites currently in orbit is a respectable 25 ms. He also said that one more set of revised test satellites will be required before ramping up production.

Will Elon Musk Eliminate Global Poverty?

muskElon Musk aims high with the companies he founds. He intends to combat global warming through electrification of society (Tesla, Solar City), reinvent transportation through use of tunnels (The Boring Company, Hyperloop), save society from abuses of Artificial Intelligence (OpenAI), recast how humans communicate with computers (Neuralink), and safeguard humanity’s future through colonization of Mars (SpaceX).

His greatest legacy, however, may be none of these. His greatest legacy may be the elimination of global poverty. He himself possibly doesn’t even know this may be an outcome of his efforts.

Bear with me here.

The planet has made great progress in the reduction of global poverty. Since 2000, the percentage of people living under $1.90 per day (the World Bank’s current definition of “extreme poverty”) has dropped from 35% to less than half that today (thanks mostly to great progress in India, and especially China). The UN has established as one of its “Sustainable Development Goals” the elimination of extreme poverty by 2030.

The challenge is that the remaining populations living in extreme poverty are the hardest to reach and assist. They are almost all rural (or remote), most in Africa, and most with little connection to government or international programs of assistance. Most have no electricity and no internet connection.

Which is where Elon Musk comes in.

With respect to electricity, poorest communities have given up on trying to link to a national electric grid (which is much too expensive) and are jumping straight to household “microgrids”. For example, India has launched a program to give by the end of 2018 all households with no electricity a microgrid comprising a solar panel, battery, five lights, fan, and cell charger. Microgrids have gotten much cheaper and better, in great part thanks to improvements in battery technology. Battery technology is being driven mostly by the popularity of electric vehicles. Electric vehicles are becoming more popular due in great part to Tesla and Elon Musk.

And with respect to internet connections, Elon Musk’s role is even more direct. SpaceX has an ambitious, relatively secretive effort to launch nearly 12,000 satellites into low earth orbit to bathe the planet in broadband. The system will be initially operational in 2020 and fully operational by 2025. This means that those places that are too difficult or expensive to reach with traditional internet connections will suddenly be online. Since less than half the planet currently has usable, affordable access to the internet, this is a really big deal.

If a household has electricity and it has internet, it can link to information services, education resources, health guidance, government programs and other services. It may be simplistic to say that extreme poverty is incompatible with global broadband — but for many reasons that is probably true.

So Elon — please keep at the global warming / transport / safe computing / saving humanity tasks — we appreciate it. And while you’re at it, you may also eliminate global poverty. Thank you in advance!

Facebook Ditches Aquila

aquilaFacebook recently announced that they will be stopping their Aquila drone initiative, instead relying on other companies to build high altitude aircraft. In a company blog post, Facebook said that they no longer plan to build their own equipment since the broader industry is now interested in the concept.

Facebook continues to support connectivity programs for the ~four billion people currently without internet access, including fiber programs, terragraph, and policy initiatives such as a proposal for 2019 World Radio Conference to get more spectrum for High Altitude Platform Station (HAPS) systems. Facebook also is quietly investing in a next generation satellite program.

Celebrating Fiber

fiber.jpgAs broadband expands throughout the globe, most communications are still carried by fiber optic cable. Can we take a minute to celebrate the marvel of this technology?

Scientists have known for 150 years that glass can be used to guide light. In the 1980s, manufacturers improved techniques to make highly transparent threads of glass the width of a human hair and over a hundred kilometers long. Simultaneously laser technology was getting cheaper and smaller, and digital data processing getting faster.

So why bother with fiber instead of traditional copper (the first undersea copper cable was laid across the Atlantic in 1858)?

For starters, fiber optic cables have an unbelievable capacity for carrying information. A single fiber, for example, can carry 3,000,000 simultaneous phone conversations. Since a cable can comprise over 1000 fibers, this means a single cable could support three billion conversations — or half the planet speaking with the other half, simultaneously.

Light travels efficiently with very low attenuation. Signals can maintain sufficient strength for over 100 kilometers before needing a boost.

Cables carrying information with pulses of light aren’t subject to electromagnetic interference the way typical copper cables are. The signals avoid corruption (and eavesdropping is much more difficult).

And one more important characteristic of fiber optic: the main ingredient in a cable is silica (aka sand). While copper cables around the world are highly prone to theft (copper can cost a few dollars a pound, and large cables will weigh tons), if thieves want silica, it’s a lot easier to pilfer the beach!