Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, yesterday outlined plans to start launching a constellation of satellites in 2019 that could provide affordable internet access options to all areas of the globe by 2024.
There are currently an estimated 4 billion people globally without internet access. Many of these potential users live in areas that traditional cable-based broadband infrastructures cannot easily reach, or where it simply becomes too costly to install. If implemented, this ambitious project will consist of a space-based web of satellites that will beam directly to ground gateways or user terminals. This will remove the dependence on cables, thereby making it possible for isolated places to gain access, and at affordable costs.
Speaking to the Senate Commerce Committee in Washington DC, Patricia Cooper, Vice President of Satellite Government Affairs at SpaceX, announced that a prototype satellite will be launched by the end of this year, followed by another in early 2018. If successful, SpaceX will proceed with their operational satellite launch campaign in 2019.
The plan is to use the company’s own reusable Falcon 9 rockets to launch a total of 4,425 satellites into low earth orbit altitudes of 1,110km to 1,325km. The proposed network will operate on the Ka– and Ku-band frequencies, which are able to achieve high resolution uplinks and downlinks, and are not subject to interference by terrestrial microwaves.
Commenting on the project’s potential, Cooper said that the satellites will “help alleviate the inherent challenges of providing high-speed internet to rural and “hard-to-reach areas””, opening up the potential for economic growth as well as better access to healthcare and education. Additionally, the service will create some much needed market competition in the broadband space.
Given there are around 1,500 active satellites and a further 2,600 inactive satellites currently orbiting Earth, the addition of the proposed 4,425 may raise concerns about the worsening of space junk and an increased risk of collisions.
The project is required to navigate several regulatory hurdles, but if given the go-ahead, has the potential to provide reliable and affordable broadband access options to the global population.
Lucy Timms is studying for an MSc in Science Communication
Banner image: SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket, Jim Grossman