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FCC approves SpaceX plan for satellite broadband network (techcrunch.com)
347 points by vinnyglennon 10 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 174 comments

When I read satellites & internet, latency is the first thing that came to mind.

But at the altitude the satellites (will) operate, that adds about 8ms delay (round trip for satellite immediately above, might be slightly worse). In contrast, the fastest round-trip to a geostationary sat is 233ms. That's a big improvement.

It gets better. The speed of light in a fiber optic cable is about 2/3rds of C. The proposed system (from what I understand) essentially uses free space optics between the constellation of satellites as the backbone. Instead of regular satellite internet service which routes up to a satellite then down to a ground station then over a fiber optic backbone. SpaceX’s system will route traffic across the constellation of satellites then down directly to the remote end (or the closest egress point to whatever the remote end is if they aren’t on the network). This means although total distance travelled is longer, the speed it’s travelling at is 1/3rd faster. So overall this will become very interesting for latency sensitive long distance communications.

> the speed it’s travelling at is 1/3rd faster

About 50% faster if the speed of light in fibre is 2c/3.

Just did some back of napkin math, and assuming you wanted to transmit information half way across the world with a fiber optic cable at sea level that goes exactly where you want it to, it would go 12566 miles (2pi4000/2) @ 124,666 miles per second (2/3)c, or take ~.1 seconds.

If you transmitted data straight up 700 miles, and then around the constellation all at 700 miles elevation, and then back down 700 miles, it would need to go 16165 miles (700*2 + 2pi4700/2) @ 187,000 miles per second (1c), or take 0.086 seconds.

This seems like pretty exciting stuff.

You need to add more latency for every time a device is encountered in the total path. As long as the amplifiers are optical that's a non issue but the satellites and base stations will have to receive and rebroadcast and the fiber optic network will likely at some point end up terminated at some router and then there will still be a number of hops to the destination.

They aren't accounting for devices in the path for land nor space, so the question becomes are there more or less devices in the average path for each case, and by how much, and what's the average penalty occurred for each device in each case?

Undersea optic cables use optical amplifiers, which is a pretty neat trick and does not introduce latency, and so should not count as a hop.


In the end it is probably mostly a matter of how many hops that will determine which is the faster path, the two paths are mostly equal in other respects, I suspect the latency incurred for each hop is roughly the same, assuming they use error correction and re-transmission on the link layers between the satellites.

If it all gets passed through blindly then it will be a bit quicker because there is no decoding step involved but I highly doubt that because it would lead to substantial inefficiencies and loss of capacity (the difference between a switched and hub). Smarter to be a bit slower and to maximize the routing capabilities of the satellites so as to optimize for the scarce resource: inter-satellite bandwidth.

You're correct, but I don't know enough about satellites to know their retransmit delay, nor enough about fiber optics generally. I figured it all may offset because you'll never get a fiber optic cable to go exactly where you want it to go, and you may end up a mixed medium route with something like copper->fiber->copper->air->fiber->copper route, or something like that.

Starlink is supposed to be direct-to-consumer, so no hops at the end points.

Only when the endpoint nodes are both Starlink customers. Otherwise there will be a gateway at at least one endpoint and a number of hops after that.

I'm quite curious to see what their antenna setup looks like in practice that's going to be an engineering marvel.

Indeed. These satellites move which means the antenna dishes have to do so as well. Or they'll use phased arrays, and phased arrays are not consumer-cheap (yet).

From what I've heard, the consumer end gear supposed to use phased arrays "about the size of a pizza box" and cost in the range of $100-$300.

Aren’t TV satellites something like 5000-30000km away? 200km sounds easy.

Those are geostationary, these are not. So that's 'easy' as in 'a mere matter of engineering'. You will either have to track the satellite mechanically or by 'beam steering' aka phased arrays. Neither of those are trivial technology wise.

any Idea how big one of these antennas needs to be? Could you mount it on a gimbal similar to a DJI is mom and just have it aim automatically where the signal is strongest?

Is it feasible for the satellites to optically relay?

They could use laser based comms from one satellite to another:


But optical signal amplification is a trick that really only works when you are on a very long run where the signal gets attenuated to the point that you need to boost it. There is no routing option in such a system, it is essentially point-to-point with in-line amplifiers.

So even if they may use laser based comms I don't think optical amplification will be used, the more likely avenue is to decode the optical signal, decide where it has to go next and then fire off another burst.

Alternatively they may use radio waves instead of lasers, I'm not sure what system SpaceX will use for this particular system, given the accuracy required for laser based communications I would assume they will use radio.

I've been reading some more about StarLink, apparently they did a test using lasers so probably that's what they will use for satellite-to-satellite communications, and radio to the ground because of atmospheric interference and sensitivity to rain and clouds.


Are you talking satellite-to-satellite relaying? Assuming they're all moving relative to each other, then probably not, unless the laser transmitter or receiver are moving as well. And moving parts wear down and require power, so you'd want to avoid them on a satellite if possible. However, if parts of the constellation are following each other in exactly the same orbital path, then those parts might be able to optically relay without moving parts.

My first job in 1998 was working on the integration and test plans for Teledesic’s Optical Inter-Satellite Link Tracking (or OISLT, pronounced “oyselt”—probably the worst acronym I ever used). The design wasn’t done yet, but we were already planning integration tests to prove them out before anything was launched.

We were planning on tracking satellites in adjacent orbital planes (which were orbiting in the opposite direction) as well as in-plane. So, yeah, moving parts.

Whenever this topic comes up, I wonder what happened to all the work we did at Motorola in 98-99. There were several hundred engineers in Tempe generating thousands of pages of design documents for over a year. We archived all our work in spring 1999 sand were all shuffled off to other projects.

Yes. They already did some tests doing this.

Also, you need to have a cloud-free line-of-sight to the satellite.

The path between satellites would zig-zag.

Presuming a flat surface of 200 X 200, and a random line across half of that, and presuming that satellites only communicate with nearest neighbours you can guesstimate that the extra distance is significant (ignoring other factors).

If they can communicate with more distant satellites then distance could decrease (short cut segments around great circle).

The path taken by fiber optic cables is at least as bad, though. Even before you count the slower speed of light in glass.

The satellites will be meshed over 83 orbital planes starting around 1100km up. The satellites will connect to the farthest satellite it can see that makes the shortest path to the egress. So 2~3 hops verse a datacenter hops to the fiber ingress..then out the fiber across the atlantic.

I did the same math, got a similar result. I found that getting data from one side of the earth to the other should be about 17.4% faster in space.

Since the earth is 6,378 km in radius, adding another 1,150 km only makes the circumference about 18% longer.

The latency comment for repeaters someone else made is important, but it also won't be going in a circle between satellites, but in straight lines through the circle (as far as geometry allows), which will help shave a few ms.

I believe Iridium also uses its satellite-to-satellite crosslinks for backhaul.

In fact, the SpaceX proposal looks a lot like the Iridium concept in general, but with thousands of little satellites instead of dozens of larger ones (which probably makes the implementation very different).

A major difference is Iridium's 2.4kps which is nowhere near broadband, and no even dialup speed in the 90's.

You are comparing Iridium decade-old service to SpaceX's future service. A better comparison would be to the "Iridium Next" satellites, which are currently being deployed, will be available before SpaceX's service, and will increase bandwidth by more than two orders of magnitude (512 kbps).


I wonder if sites like google will launch their own orbital servers

Was going to mention the same. Half of their new constellations is up now. Apparently, you can use the commercially available hotspot devices that are out now. I'm curious how fast and well it will work.

Said constellation, by the way, being launched also by SpaceX ^_^

Unless it is an Iridium handset to Iridium handset call, it will always be routed to one of Iridium's ground stations:

- Arizona - Hawaii (Military only) - Russia

and then it is routed through the fibre backbone.

With the SpaceX proposal there will be more ground egress points, so it will be able to get closer to the destination before grounding.

IridiumNEXT sats are 860kg.

SpaceX's 2 test satellites were 400 kg.

Besides being much newer (and lighter components are now available), the electronics for a Free Space Optical system are much lighter than the electronics for an RF system.

The concept 'Size, Weight, and Power' (SWaP) is commonly used when comparing FSO vs. RF systems. Incidentally, FSO systems have lower SWaP than RF systems. They're smaller and lighter payloads, and the system requires less poweR.

It's Teledesic.

Huh! Never heard of them before! (Which I guess is kind of the point.)

Hopefully the telecoms market has changed enough since then (cf Iridium's recent profitability, even while launching a whole new constellation) to make it suddenly viable.

And SpaceX isn't trying to go for the mobile market. Fixed broadband only.

That makes technical sense. Original Iridium uses weird modulation scheme (which is also used as security-by-obscurity) for the sole purpose of having simple ground terminals, while Inmarsat in it's current generation is "bounce UMTS off GEO satelite" which requires either stationary or surprisingly complex ground terminals.

SpaceX's network seems to work the other way around by being designed around fast-moving satellites and complex ground terminals that do the tracking and hand-overs by means of phase array antennas (ie. completely solid-state). In comparison to Inmarsat it is not GEO-bounce and in comparison to Iridium they seem to have some solution for having fully connected mesh of satellites (original Iridium is not fully connected sphere as there isn't even attempt to have link between satellites with oposite orbits)

Antenna as big as a pizza box. I believe I heard mentions of using it on cars (Teslas?) and other moving vehicles, like boats.

Mobile uses (including cars) are only speculation at this point. License is for fixed, and only references have been to fixed.

Keep in mind that the diameter becomes larger (slowing down intercontinental comms), but I'm not sure if that's large enough to outweigh the 2/3c in fiber mentioned in a sibling comment.

So now one company controls the satellites in the skies, from the uplink to the downlink. When do we add other companies into the mix? We could have an "Internet of satellites" that operates on a BGP type protocol. The satellites could autonomously position themselves and route traffic amongst each other according to the protocol. It would be just like the Internet now, but with routers that could arrange themselves in 3-dimensional space. That would be so cool.

There are at least 2 other serious players in LEO satellite constellations who have launched prototypes or will shortly. Oneweb (which doesn't do sat-to-sat comms, so is just a "last mile" provider, like Globalstar is for sat phone) and Telesat (following an Iridium-like sat-to-sat approach, just like SpaceX is), which launched a bunch of prototypes even earlier than SpaceX did.

...and a whole bunch of other players. So competition is definitely a thing.

They have no real satellites up there yet. They do have two prototype testing sats though.

In fact, SpaceX is actually really behind on this. http://www.oneweb.world/ actually has sats built now and are building the rest of the constellation now.

So SpaceX will not be alone if they actually manage to build a constellation. Also, the Iridium next constellation is half way up and running. Which is technically a LEO constellation that can provide internet.

SpaceX currently has test satellites in orbit.

Given all the incredibly complicated stuff that needs to be done to talk between things whizzing around the Earth that quickly, I don't think it's going to standardized any time soon.

Awesome for rural dwellers. No more dial up, bottom end dsl, or high latency / high orbit satellite connectivity.

Probably good for airline inflight WiFi too.

Also for people who are stuck with a 'diversity' of choices, i.e. 'cable' or 'phone'. I live in an area that is mere miles from Google Fiber but I will never get an option to use them. I am not latency sensitive at all and will be delighted to try out the SpaceX option if they make it available.

> I live in an area that is mere miles from Google Fiber but I will never get an option to use them.

In the world of physical fiber connectivity, a "mere miles" could be anything from 100s of thousands of dollars to millions of dollars worth of investment to connect you. Unfortunately. It would only make sense for them to provide service in your area if the infrastructure already exists or there is enough population density to make service profitable.

I'm curious to see how this style of space broadband impacts the second tier broadband nations, such as France, Italy, Australia, Greece, etc. They have persistently lagged far behind in broadband speeds for the last 20 years running.

For everybody else below that, it's a revolution in access. If you're in Brazil, Colombia or Argentina where the average is around 5-8mbps, this could be a huge change if the price is close enough to what their markets can bear. It should help all of these nations leap over the need to build out very expensive national fiber to the premises systems.

It depends on the population density of the area. This will be very good for rural and semi-rural areas, but in Australia at least for any metropolitan/suburban area our current LTE is probably almost already higher capacity than a connection using this satellite constellation will be.

People are a little over-excited about the possibilities of this network - even with the huge number of satellites they have, if you’re in a densely populated area you could still be sharing a spot beam with 100k to many hundreds of thousands of people. Now, even if they had a ridiculously good 1Tbps per spot beam (currently there are satellites that can do that much throughout for the whole thing but in reality you’d probably be both power- and RF spextrum-constrained).

So at 100k subscribers you’re down to about 15Mbps per subscriber (being really generous), so you’re talking about on average, best case in suburban areas having a 50-60Mbps service. In metro probably more like 10 theoretically (and potentially an order of magnitude less in reality with decent take up rate)...

This kind of speed is already fairly common in Australia in metro/suburban areas (I have 100/40Mbps) and LTE is generally is even faster but the quotas really small (I have 12Gbps a month on LTE but 1Tb on my cable).

The main problem for this kind of internet in Australia is that we have some of the highest urbanisation in the world (which actually makes it easy to run fixed line services like FTTH to 80% or so of our population - our problems have been almost entirely a failed Government privatisation of our monopoly telco (which turned them into a single, huge, anticompetitive private monopoly) and then a change of Government watering down a Government-run last mile network that was in early construction that private retailers would sell services over on an open-access basis (changing to obsolete technology like FTTN from FTTH on ideological grounds to cripple it)).

So we don’t have as much as the market in the semi-rural kind of density which is where Spacex’s idea would really shine.

From what it sounds like, majority of people don’t have have access to affordable, half decent internet coverage. People are appropriately excited about the prospects for these new satellite nets. It offers a real alternative to status quo, and enough pressure to obligate the incumbent monopolies to try harder. There is a lot of money sitting on the table waiting for someone to come scoop it up. Incumbent Carriers wont be able to flood a market to strangle Spacex like they do with small start up ISPs and Wisps.

Also, I presume Spacex and others will be significantly over subscribing their ‘pipes’. They can take huge advantage of selling the same pipe to business and home users, with different time-of-day use profiles. So you can double or triple or even 10x the number of customers (or available link speed!) in your assumption, all paying $50-$150/mo, since most connections are dormant most of the time. I’m sure we will see simple mechanisms to push the heaviest users back to landline connections, like data caps.

I have toyed with the idea of launching a WISP in Memphis TN area. The city has good cell tower build out, a surprisingly robust dark fiber network, and a few tall and evenly distributed high rises that could to provide great coverage. I was scared away due to the ability of incumbents to our-market me 100-1, and (illegally) dump their services on the market. However, the nail in the coffin for me was the announcement and progression of SpaceX’s internet plans. Sat based internet service is a beautiful business plan if you can control your launch costs and get latency down. Spacex has a high probability of getting it done.

I'm probably in the minority in that I basically don't care if I can get WiFi on a flight or not. Good opportunity to read and watch movies.

But to your broader point, it does increasingly become difficult to live somewhere without good Internet. I know people, including in tech, who manage with just satellite but it means largely doing without a lot of things that many increasingly take for granted like streaming video and music and being generally careful about large downloads. (Bandwidth/data caps is probably a bigger issue than latency in general.) 5G will help too.

The timeline, 2200 in the next 6 years is mind boggling.

"In the next 5 - 15 years" has become a trite phrase I've grown to distrust. Somehow, that timeline is never fulfilled. It seems to be the favorite of people who feel they're close to a technology, but still don't know what they don't know. I hear it everywhere, but not everyone has gotten sick of that phrase yet.

I mean, SpaceX is launching ~20 times a year, now. That "5-15 years" came true for them.

And it better not be trite. If they don't launch half the constellation (~2000 out of ~4000) within 6 years, then they lose their radiofrequency license.

that's Musk favorite sport

Along with his habit of setting unreallistic and overly aggressive targets, let's not forget that he is also consistently late.

So maybe by 2030 (2018+2*6) this plan will be executed. Let's hope so!

It's not a plan though. They won't be able to continue sending up satellites without meeting the target unless they get approval from the FCC.

Dunno why you were downvoted. This isn't just some Muskian highly optimistic projection, it's a regulatory requirement by the FCC. If they don't launch half the constellation within 6 years, they risk losing their license.

That's 7 satellites per launch at the current SpaceX cadence.

...or 70 satellites every tenth launch.

Another poster said their test satellites were 400kg, and the falcon 9 can hoist 22,800kg to LEO according to Wikipedia. That gives a ratio of 57 satellites per Falcon 9. The final satellite design might be heavier or lighter, the desired orbit may require more fuel and less payload, the satellites may require some additional hardware for securely storing and deploying them, and the current F9 may be superseded by bigger or more efficient or cheaper per payload kg rockets over the course of the next few years, so 70 per launch is probably a good guess to within an order of magnitude.

If they wait for the BFR, that (also according to Wikipedia) has a projected payload to LEO of 150,000kg or 375 test-satellite-equivalent masses. If it's cheaper per kg, they might just use that.

F9 can do 22,800kg per launch when flying expendable. I don't think SpaceX intends to many expendable launches for their own constellations. iirc the max payload to LEO when flying recoverable to barge is ~18,000kg, and when returning to launch site ~13,000kg.

To minimize costs, I think it makes more sense for them to do RTLS than barge landings, especially as barge landings put hard limits on launch frequency (the barges aren't very fast).

However, even that 13,000kg is probably too high, because that is to an orbit that is probably lower than the 1150-1300km ones they are going to use for this.

However, for practical reasons enlarging the fairings can be more expensive than just flying more, so the limit of satellites per launch is probably set by how many they can fit into the standard F9 payload fairing. (1).

> If they wait for the BFR

They can't wait for very long, or they might lose their spectrum allocation. The contract requires them to put up half of their constellation in 6 years.

(1) page 36 of: http://www.spacex.com/sites/spacex/files/falcon_9_users_guid...

The F9 will be volume constricted not weight. Maybe they will build a bigger fairing, but that has some problems as well.

People are currently think they can send more then 10-20 on one flight.

Yes, but that would mean they're not launching anything else... the mind boggling part to me was that they're planning on over doubling the number of satellites in space in the span of 6 years.

The rate SpaceX builds rockets is roughly half of the rate Roscosmos (their closest competitor) builds them. Despite this, this year SpaceX got really close to them in launches (18 vs 20), simply because they could reuse 5 boosters instead of having to build new ones for every launch.

Starting with the launch of Bangabandhu-1 on top of the B1046 core on 24th of this month, SpaceX will start launching satellites on top of the new Block 5 versions of their boosters. They are not designed to be reused once or twice with teardowns that approximate what was done with the Shuttles between the launches, they are designed to be reused "many" times, with refits every 10th launch.

What blows my mind about SpaceX is not just that costs are going to come down, it's just how much the worldwide space launch capacity is going to go up when they continue mass-producing rockets without discarding them, growing their fleet of launchers by ~1 every two months. (Factoring in the customers who want the performance of flying expendable).

How sad. Seems like rockets are one of the few things Russia was still good at.

Now the only thing I can think of is their new nukes.

> would mean they're not launching anything else..

Falcon 9 payload to LOE is 22,800kg.

The orbits these satellites will fly in will make them almost impossible to launch alongside other payloads. Other than maybe a few weather satellites, simply put no-one else will want to fly where they are flying.

Of course, the high payload of the boosters and the low weight of a single satellite in this constellation will mean that SpaceX will launch a lot of them per one rocket.

Can we one day run out of resources on Earth if we send away a lot of objects to space or is it negligible?

If I am understanding what you are asking, then yes - in theory, one (ok - an advanced species; note, that is not humans - not yet) could consume all the materials of the Earth, convert them, and turn them into "things" that are in space; in short, strip mining the Earth until it was completely gone.

Certainly that could be done in theory - but the amount of energy it would take would be of a scale we haven't even begun to barely imagine. We certainly aren't generating that amount to do it, or harnessing such amount either.

So practically, the answer to your question is "no"; what we "send away" from the Earth is negligible.

In order for you to understand why, I encourage you to research the scale of things you are trying to understand. The Earth is big - really big. It may not seem like it, but it really is. What might cause you both a bit of "fright" and "wonder" though is the atmosphere: Compared to the Earth, the atmosphere is thin - very thin. For instance, if you imagined a baseball as the planet Earth, the atmosphere would be a very thin layer over the surface of the baseball, much lower than the ridges formed by the lacings.

Then you compare the scale of the Earth (it's size) to that of say - Jupiter (heck, just the Great Red Spot!). Then compare Jupiter's size to the size of the Sun (hint: Jupiter is tiny).

Then compare the Sun to the size of our nearest neighboring star. Then compare the size of that to other known stars.

Eventually you get to the size of our galaxy - which is an insanely large collection of stars...

Then take a look at the Hubble Deep Space image - and realize that all of those points, far in the background - that all of those are each a galaxy, separated by vast distances from each other...

...and then realize that what we see on that image is only a tiny amount of the whole universe.

The Earth? Compared to all that, we aren't even the size of a quark on the butt of a bacterium...

I would be more worried about the opposite occurring -- all these initiatives to mine asteroids are introducing new inputs into the closed loop that is the Earth's physical manifestation

We already have a lot of mass of random junk falling into the atmosphere from space all the time. A result from a quick google search:

> Estimates for the mass of material that falls on Earth each year range from 37,000-78,000 tons. Most of this mass would come from dust-sized particles.


I guess this means the Earth gets slightly bigger and gravity becomes slightly stronger over time, but it's a much smaller effect than, say, the ocean's tides creating drag that slows the rotation of the Earth.

Presumably, the materials we mine and bring back aren't going to have the same composition as micrometeorites, since space gravel exactly isn't economically valuable. As long as we aren't bringing back super toxic or environmentally damaging stuff that's rare on Earth, I'm not too worried. Also, I expect all but the most valuable elements (e.g. gold, platinum) will be re-used in space to build infrastructure.

It's interesting that a robust space launch economy could compensate for the thousands of tons of annual space gravel, and cause the Earth to maintain its mass at a constant value.

The earth loses mass in the form of leaked hydrogen and helium. Upwards of 100,000 tonnes each year just from that.

Thank you for this beautiful exemplification of https://www.xkcd.com/1053/

In terms of energy, it'd take about a week's worth of the sun's total power output to disassemble the Earth. So on one hand yeah, it'd be very doable for an advanced civilization to deplete the Earth's resources that way, but on the other we're pretty far from that level.

There's obviously an upper limit but we are very far from reaching that. Satellites are made up of many components much of which is aluminum most composed of bauxite. Apparently we have a lot reserves and are able to meet demand for quite awhile into the future.[1]

Worst case we can always recycle that space junk but it's still way cheaper to recycle what we have on our surface before we run out of mines or grab stuff from orbit.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bauxite

Why not? Why do you assume that is an immediate threat?

Who controls/regulates this piece of the internet? Because this is more like internet for the planet.

FCC gets the final say because SpaceX headquartered and launches from U.S. That said in theory SpaceX will have to comply with regulations of all of the countries where it wants to operate. Some of those countries undoubtedly will pass laws/regulations to protect domestic telco incumbents.

Don't they still launch in international waters? EDIT/ Thank you for the correction, that's just landing. /EDIT

Headquartered yes, but the barge ~~launches~~ landings keep making me think long term SPaceX will be looking at extra-territorial options.

It doesn't even matter where they launch from - the Outer Space Treaty is written in terms of who does something, not where they do it from (cf SeaLaunch, and the absolute lack of ambiguity about state regulatory jurisdiction for objects it launched. In fact, emerging consensus (because the Outer Space Treaty is vague on the subject) is that it doesn't even matter who is launching the object, just which country('s citizens) owns and operate the satellites. cf. the recent incident where some American satellites were launched unlicensed on an Indian PSLV, the US government got all huffy at the company, and the Indians agreed by default that the US had jurisdiction (by washing their hands of responsibility).

I asked a 'space lawyer' questions on this topic and we came to the conclusion that perhaps Sealaunch should team-up with Sealand to offer a 'pirate satellite' operations service.

It doesn't matter where they launch from, since their customers live on Earth. If they want to sell, they will have to be follow local laws.

They don't launch from barges. They land on them.

They've never launched from international waters that's just where the core recovery happens.

Like Mars? ;)

This will be interesting. Especially if you look at the territory laws in the UN Space treaty. I look forward to when we see our first off earth based corporation, and won't be surprised if it is a SpaceX child entity.

The current internet is also internet for the planet.

I'm sure every country they serve will attempt to regulate it, just like every country currently tries to regulate the internet. With mixed success.

Who regulates global satellite TV?

Depends on which country is launching it; the Outer Space Treaty assigns the right and responsibility for regulating space objects to the state whose government or citizens own it (note - not necessarily who launched it).

Note, however, that all states are capable of regulating receivers. Many smaller dictatorial states ban (generally in vain) pointing your dish at certain satellites. The big ones, democratic and otherwise, usually just condition the permission to operate as a business in their country (salespeople, support, etc.) on satisfying regulatory concerns.

Apparently the FCC, since they just 'approved' it.

Just like how NOAA apparently regulates you taking pictures of earth.

This is just the Teledesic[1] project respun with more up to date hardware. Back in the late 90's Motorola and Microsoft teamed up to put 288 satellites in orbit, the number being constrained by costs and launches.

[1] http://www.mobilecomms-technology.com/projects/teledesic/

You say 'just', but the reality is, SpaceX can do this because they are directly responsible for reducing said cost and launch constraints. That's no small feat.

Article mentions that this is just the high-altitude constellation in MEO, and there will be as many as 12000 total at all altitudes.

Putting 4425 in MEO, another ~7500 in LEO, and maybe a few in higher orbits, is likely a plan to reduce latency and increase bandwidth.

SpaceX has already launched some (50?) IridiumNEXT satellites, a planned constellation of 66 operational in LEO, plus 9 spares in a lower orbit, and 6 spares on the ground.

The high altitude constellation is still definitely in LEO (extends to 2000km), not MEO. The second constellation is in LEO, too, but SpaceX calls it "VLEO" because it's so low that atmospheric drag would pull down an unpowered satellite within weeks.

Didn't the FCC just stomp on "SpaceBee" for trying to bootstrap something similar?


I'm not sure what you mean by "bootstrap" or if you're implying that spaceX should be treated similarly, but the key difference here is that spaceX isn't doing anything without regulatory approval first.

I personally think they should be barred from future launches. We should not set precedence that a company can launch whatever they want without approval and just pay a fine.

All these other companies follow the guidelines.

They got into trouble because their application was denied (ostensibly because their satellites were too small to be reliably tracked by ground-based radar) but they went ahead and launched anyway.

Next, are they gonna re-approve SpaceX for showing video footage of their launches?

There are already people doing this. Not that it means no one else should, but this isn't a new idea.


OneWeb didn't invent the idea, either. In fact, SpaceX once partnered with OneWeb, but OneWeb wasn't on board with Musk's crazily ambitious plans for the LEO constellation, and OneWeb's constellation is kind of lame because it doesn't do satellite-to-satellite communications.

There was a rash of these schemes in the 1990s. Teledesic was the most similar one, and they went bankrupt and the constellation never launched. Voice-centric Iridium and Globalstar did launch, though, but they also went bankrupt but continued operating and have been refreshing their constellations. Iridium does sat-to-sat and is thus more capable, but Globalstar does not (they do "bent pipe" ala OneWeb).

And there's also Telestar's LEO constellation also being launched nowadays. It's sat-to-sat and is closer to Teledesic in size than SpaceX's Starlink.

They are not already doing it, they are like SpaceX planning it. The might be a little ahead of SpaceX but we really don't know. SpaceX is playing Starlink extremly secretly and we don't know how far they really are.

That link just says they make satellites, not a global satellite based internet.

So there are ~1,459 artificial satellites orbiting the Earth right now. Am I the only one that thinks adding 4,425 is a bit much? Certainly there is a way to do this with less space junk?

Maybe your sense of "much" is thrown off by not-to-scale visualizations. Space is big, even near-earth space is bigger than the entire surface Earth.

These 1500 satellites are probably, on average, the size of a van. Is 1500 vans distributed on surface of the earth "much"? These SpaceX / Starlink satellites are considerably smaller - about the size of an oven or washing machine. What does it mean for 4500 ovens spread out over the surface of the earth to be "much"?

This is a great analogy! To add a little color, all of those satellites that are geostationary (most of them used for communications to date, with the exceptions of Iridium and o3b) are like vans laid out along the equator. Starlink's satellites (in addition to being at a much, much lower altitude) are in different planes - for even more separation from existing satellites.

The available volume out at geostationary orbit absolutely dwarfs low earth orbit or the Earth's surface.

Unless I'm mistaken, isn't geostationary orbit essentially a single circle? So it technically has zero volume. Individual satellites are assigned constant locations in longitude.


I think that's correct, but since they're stationary (relative to each other) perhaps they can be packed more densely without risk of collision?

Geostationary orbit is just really really far away.

Yes, space is, like, infinitely bigger than people imagine it to be. However your analogy is incomplete unless those 4500 ovens are wandering the surface of the Earth at mach 25.

“Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.”

This quote sounds familiar, but can't pinpoint who said it. It almost feels like I should know even...

Any pointers? :)

Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy, Douglas Adams. Everyone here knows that but the real world is different.

Douglas Adams

Well, we do have thousands of airplane-sizes airplanes wandering the atmosphere at mach speeds. And we wouldn’t consider the airspace "full".

It's full enough that it requires continuous guidance and collision avoidance measures. And the majority of those planes are not going even close to as fast as satellites in LEO/MEO move.

There is a team at NASA tracking all that stuff though

>NASA and the DoD cooperate and share responsibilities for characterizing the satellite (including orbital debris) environment. DoD’s Space Surveillance Network tracks discrete objects as small as 2 inches (5 centimeters) in diameter in low Earth orbit and about 1 yard (1 meter) in geosynchronous orbit. Currently, about 15,000 officially cataloged objects are still in orbit. The total number of tracked objects exceeds 21,000. Using special ground-based sensors and inspections of returned satellite surfaces, NASA statistically determines the extent of the population for objects less than 4 inches (10 centimeters) in diameter.


Sure, that's pretty common knowledge isn't it?

GGP was trying to make the point that airplanes don't collide and that they travel fast but that's not the whole story, there are a lot of people working hard to keep it that way.

Also, even though NASA is tracking stuff there isn't much they can do about it, it's mostly to help determine new orbits and to make sure that launches do not accidentally intersect with some chunk of space debris.

My point was that we can apply the same technological solutions we’ve found for aerospace also to spaceflight.

We can use tracking and modern software solutions to plan where to put new satellites.

4500 is far from the maximum possible.

> We can use tracking and modern software solutions to plan where to put new satellites.

And of course they will do just that.

But satellites carry only relatively little propellant and the bulk of it is used to maintain altitude, especially for LEO/MEO satellites. Serious course changes are going to be pretty rare whereas they are the norm for anything with wings.

On another note, airtravel (not general aviation) tends to happen in 'corridors' with traffic control handing over at the borders of control zones. For satellites the situation is vastly different.

The same technological solutions that we've found for aerospace have almost no application in satellite orbital computations and the management of fleets of satellites.

That has a lot to do with human lives being within those objects and gravity pulling them down to earth potentially being a danger to more human lives. All that versus floating space junk and dollars down the drain for the engineering, development, launch, and ongoing functionality of those satellites.

I would not describe any commercial aviation operation as "wandering". The rules are very clearly defined and very strict about where and when a plane is allowed to be. It's very much actively managed.

Take a look at the airspace around a major airport when a storm system moves in. Airspace is absolutely congested.

> These SpaceX / Starlink satellites are considerably smaller - about the size of an oven or washing machine.

The dimensions that appear in the FCC application[1] are 4.0 x 1.8 x 1.2 meters. About size of a small passenger van actually. Doubtless that will not be the launch size, but they will have these dimensions while in operation.

[1] http://licensing.fcc.gov/myibfs/download.do?attachment_key=1...

Before they push that much extra stuff into orbit, they really should be required to demonstrate a working way to clean up space junk. If they aren't required to, then these 4500 ovens will be left for a very long time after they are no longer in use, until their orbits decay...

The plan submitted to the FCC includes descriptions of the plans for deorbiting the satellites when they have completed their useful life.

SpaceX proposes to deorbiting the satellites much faster then international regulations require.

If 4,425 low orbit satellites which are responsibly recovered can subsume the function of some large chunk of the ~1,459 currently existing, then this will actually substantively reduce the amount of space junk being introduced to Earth orbit. This is assuming that the launches and satellites create zero debris, which is in line with SpaceX's goal of total reusability. (Harder to reuse a vehicle that has things falling off of it.)

Low orbit satellites will fall back to earth much sooner than ones in higher orbit. I would also expect SpaceX to responsibly de-orbit and scuttle their satellites, if for no other reason than to make their own lives easier.

> Am I the only one that thinks adding 4,425 is a bit much?

Probably not; all such endeavours are met by fear. Allow me to further unnerve you; this is just the first phase. The complete system, should it ever be realized, will have more than 8,000 satellites. And that's just SpaceX. There are competitors planning to launch systems of similar scale.

My wife called it the 'Cambrian explosion of space.' Effective, if not entirely correct, analogy.

The article mentions 12,000 total final satellites, but the other 8,000 operate at different altitudes/frequencies so they will need to be approved separately.

The other 8000 are going to be orbiting so low that they'll have to constantly raise their orbit to avoid re-entry.

There's only ~1459 satellites in orbit and already someone wants to prevent more building. What's the reason for this? Preserve neighborhood character? too much noise? are you worried about the traffic?

If you arbitrarily regulate everything before you even begin to innovate, you'll never know what inventions could have been created: that's why there hasn't been hardly any innovation in housing construction over the last 20 years.

In New Zealand, if you installed certain new fangled plastic plumbing a few decades ago, you house may now be unmortgagable for a new buyer because it's been silently spraying water inside your walls for years. 20 years ago there was also a rush of monolithic cladding, now many of those houses are silently rotting due to invisible leaks into the walls. Fun new construction does reduce costs but can ruin people many years later if it's too wild west.

For this to be a good argument you have to assume that the regulater understands all of these things and makes systematically better choices then the people who build the houses.

Or it would require qualifing all materials before being uses. That would increase time before deployment massivly, making new devlopment less attractive. Economist talk about 'permissionless innovation' being incredible important for progress.

These satellites are in MEO (1150km) which is relatively sparsely trafficked. Here is a good visualization http://stuffin.space/ . If you zoom out MEO would be just above the dense sphere of space stuff in LEO.

And if you think 4.5k is a lot wait until you hear about phase 2. Thankfully that is in close LEO and without constant propulsion things would deorbit in a matter of weeks. See https://www.cnbc.com/2018/02/17/spacex-testing-its-own-satel...

yeah, from what I've read they will have enough fuel to stay aloft for ~5 years. They won't be a source of permanent space debris.

Isn't space debris more about collisions which spew out thousands of tiny bits which are hard to track and may have a ludicrous velocity relative to things they run into? AIUI, large objects a relatively easy to track and avoid if you have the gas and are on a collision course.

The majority of currently tracked space debris is the result of a single anti-satellite missile test China conducted. So less collisions more weapon based destruction. And any future conflict (between nation's reliant upon gps guided weapons)will likely start with anti-satellite warfare. This worries me greatly.

The worst kind of space debris sits in orbits outside of the atmosphere where there is negligible drag. Since these satellites will be in very low orbits that require propulsion to stay aloft, any potential debris from collisions or inoperable satellites will fall back to Earth relatively quickly.


Every satellite floating around without maneuvering capabilities is one more chance for that existing tiny debris to hit something and cause a chain reaction.

That stuffin.space link is very cool. I'm a little disappointed I couldn't find the moon though. ;)

Depends on what you mean by "doing this." Having them in a lower orbit means smaller equipment required to connect, lower latency compared to connecting to satellites in GEO, and smaller lower power satellites. To get those benefits they have to be close which means more satellites for full coverage.

Also it's not like even this particular orbit will be full when SpaceX is done at 1150 km orbit the 4425 satellites would each have a bit over 80,000 km^2 to themselves on average if they're spread out evenly.

Space is big, we won't be running into any issues with satellite collisions since they can be positioned in three-dimensions and there is a lot of space.

Operational satellites are not considered space-junk since they typically have predictable or fixed orbits which can be avoided. Space junk is non-operational stuff, with potentially unpredictable orbits.

so long as it has a sufficient radar cross section, the orbits of non-operational stuff can be predicted just fine.

NORAD tracks the location of everything big enough to track, and makes it all available.

> and makes it all available

Well not 'all'; naturally the published elements omit objects related to 'national security' and objects which weren't announced as space vehicles e.g. debris.

They are also published under a very restrictive license; I can't forward the elements to you, nor publish anything derived from them, such as predictions for a pass. End-user eyes only.

All satellites will eventually be non-operational, so the question is: do they have a plan for picking up these 4500 pieces of future space junk once they are no longer in use?

Low orbit junk quickly falls back onto earth if not supported by engines.

"quickly" can still be several years, or more.

The industry standard is deorbit within 25 years after end of mission. The SpaceX proposal (1) plans for deorbiting of every satellite within one year after the end of their mission.

(1) http://licensing.fcc.gov/cgi-bin/ws.exe/prod/ib/forms/report...

They're in LOE, so they just go into atmosphere and burn.

How are SpaceX going to monitor and maintain TT&C on 3x the number of satellites that are currently orbiting the planet? That seems like a bigger question in my mind.

Financial services will love this. I bet they would pay out the nose for the extra millisecond or so of reduced latency.

This is awesome!

Literally skynet

Week old news


While I disagree with your language I agree with the sentiment. :)

Upvotes should not be about agreement, but whether you believe that this contributes to the discussion and something that you'd like to see more of.


Seeing how he actually has cars in production and he can not only launch but also land rockets those are definitely not vaporware. It remains to be seen whether either is going to be a huge business but he's definitely launched some actual products.

I really don't understand the hate for Musk. Shit, a lot of these projects are really experiments that he's funding. They're really cool experiments, at that, and experiments aren't supposed to be successful all the time, anyway.

It's like the people who bash NASA for having failures. This has never been done before!

While Musks companies do impressive things, there also is a lot of polarizing stuff that seems overdone: overconfident marketing for the "Autopilot", bashing the car industry as being incompetent while failing to get their own production up, Musk bubbling on Twitter about "direct democracy on Mars" while fighting organization among his own employees, ...

It's pushing the hype with often little basis, which is guaranteed to create dislike from people disagreeing. It's very different from bashing mistakes IMHO.

> Seeing how he actually has cars in production

You see, the the projected promise is not to have electric cars in production. It is to build cars with tech that is far advanced and game changing, to a point that owning an ICE vehicle does not make sense...

> but also land rockets those are definitely not vaporware

The promise is not that they will build rockets. The promise is mars. That is why people are cheering for them and is investing in them..

Then there is Hyperloop. Classic vaporware..You might be seeing why I think these are vaporware now...

Thanks idiots of HN for flagging the comment. A fool and his money is soon parted. If there are too many fools in the world, it is only the preservation of that law that is dictating that entities like Musk should appear.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 out-launched every other rocket on the planet last year, with 18 launches, which is double their domestic arch-rival ULA (only 9 launches total among ULA's three rockets: Atlas V and Delta II and Delta IV). This year, SpaceX are on-track for 25 to 30 launches.

Also, not only has SpaceX demonstrated reuse, but they've done so ~10 times with Falcon 9 in just over a year.

Some vaporware!

There are already two prototype satellites in orbit.

Why does anyone need permission to deploy satellites? Governments want to regulate outer-space?

The permission is for providing broadband services, which uses the regulated local radio spectrum.

Humanity wants to keep space safe and governments are its representatives.

I wounder how the FCC handles this, i have very low confidence in the FCC based on the experiences with the FCC regarding net neutrality.

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