China has launched the first test satellite of its ambitious Hongyun internet satellite program. The Hongyun program foresees a network of 156 low earth orbit internet satellites by 2025. The goal of the program is to provide internet service to rural parts of China as well as to developing countries. The program is described as part of China’s “Belt and Road” infrastructure project involving dozens of developing countries.
The Chinese technology firm LinkSure Network has unveiled a new satellite designed to provide wifi across the planet. The service, to include 272 satellites in low earth orbit, will sell a number of communications services, but also aspires to provide free wifi to regions of the planet currently without coverage.
The firm plans to launch its first test satellite in 2019, followed by ten more satellites in 2020. The full network will be operational by 2026.
The FCC has approved SpaceX’s latest application for an additional 7,518 satellites, bringing the total number of approved satellites to 11,943. Simultaneously the FCC approved hundreds of new satellites from communications firms Kepler, Telesat and Leosat.
SpaceX 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.
SpaceX 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.
One 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.
Reuters 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.
In 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.
The 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.
The 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.