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!

Update on CubeSats

cubesatCubeSats are miniaturized satellites which comply with agreed to standards, including component cube dimensions of 10 cm on a side and less than 1.3 kg of weight per unit. Imagine a container with a liter of water — that is about the size and weight of a CubeSat.

Because they are so small and primarily use commercial off-the-shelf components (mostly designed for cell phones), CubeSats are fast and cheap to design and deploy. Historically they have been launched as secondary payloads with larger launches. Over 800 CubeSats have been deployed to date, and at least 1200 more are planned for orbit. A new industry of launch services targeting CubeSats (and other small satellites) is taking shape.

The simplicity and low costs of CubeSats means many groups can now become involved in space science. Universities, high schools, and individuals have all designed and launched CubeSats. Some have even been funded by KickStarter campaigns.

Developing countries are also involved. For example, Kenya recently designed the CubeSat 1KUNS-PF which was carried to the International Space Station by a SpaceX resupply mission, and from there launched into orbit. Over 18 months it will assist with mapping of Kenya, monitoring the coastline, and identification of illegal logging. To date, an impressive 80 countries have launched CubeSats.

So to summarize, 800 CubeSats have been launched by 80 countries, with 1200 more already scheduled to go!

The Concern of Space Junk

space junk.jpgThere currently are less than 2,000 operational satellites in orbit. In the next few years, SpaceX and other launch services are going to be deploying tens of thousands of new satellites. What does this portend for the problem of space junk?

The short answer is that it is hard to know for sure.

The good news is that space is big, including even near-earth orbit. There is a lot of room for a lot of satellites. If you think, for example, about the number of boats the oceans can accommodate, and then realize that space is much, much larger, it gives an idea that there is a lot of room to work with. The odds of a collision are low.

All new satellites need to have launch approvals and also decommissioning plans (typically involving falling back into the atmosphere and burning up). SpaceX and OneWeb, for example, have committed to one year deorbiting plans for satellites at end of life.

We’re also pretty good at tracking larger pieces of space junk and identifying potential problems. The International Space Station is periodically moved in order to minimize chances of collision. Around 20,000 man-made objects are currently tracked in space (although they need to be big enough to track — estimates assume many millions of smaller items are also in orbit).

The concerning problem is that one collision can lead to the creation of lots more space junk, which in turn could collide into other satellites. Computer models show that a chain reaction of this sort is possible (the “Kessler Syndrome”). This also isn’t hypothetical: at least five satellite collisions have resulted in increased space debris. Both the International Space Station and the Mir Space Station have sustained damage from collisions with space debris. Space crowding is particular acute at the poles: many satellites maintain polar orbits (in order to have complete coverage of the earth), which means the orbits all cross at the poles.

Some scientists argue we are already in the early stages of the Kessler Syndrome.

So on the issue of space debris, most scientists cautiously believe we are OK if we are prudent. But there are definitely unknowns, and definitely risks.

Facebook Gets Into the Satellite Business

fFacebook has reportedly registered a new subsidiary to build low earth orbit (LEO) satellites, competing with SpaceX, OneWeb, and others. The subsidiary, called PointView Tech, plans to launch a demonstration satellite in 2019 to investigate using the E-band spectrum for communications. E-band promises much higher data connection speeds than those planned by rivals, but needs to overcome challenges, including absorption by rain or other particles. E-band is also used by the Facebook drone project called Aquila.

For the Facebook satellite constellation to work, there would need to be thousands of satellites, similar to SpaceX and OneWeb.

The PointView Tech initiative puts Facebook in direct competition with SpaceX. There doesn’t appear to be much love lost between Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. They have engaged in a public feud around AI. Musk recently deleted all Tesla accounts from Facebook. The relationship also wasn’t helped when Facebook’s last satellite project, AMOS-6, blew up on launch of a SpaceX rocket in August 2016.

Low Cost Satellite Networks

cubeWhile SpaceX, OneWeb, O3B and other multi-billion dollar satellite constellations garner most of the press, other lower cost initiatives demonstrate a different and potentially consequential approach.

Sky and Space Global, for example, plans to launch 200 nano-satellites (under 10 kg each) into low earth orbit in order to provide telecommunications services in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere. The satellites, which adhere to CubeSat standards, will be deployed in near-equatorial planes, reaching 15 degrees north and south of the equator.

Satellites will be launched aboard LauncherOne, the air-launched rocket from Virgin Orbit. Satellites will communicate with ground antennas which provide wifi hotspots, or potentially with a new generation of $20 Android phone capable of direct communications with the satellites.

Sky and Space Global aims to build and launch the entire constellation of 200 satellites for $200 million, a fraction of the cost of even one geosynchronous communications satellite.