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SpaceX Starlink satellite broadband gets off the ground

A pair of small satellites named for an adventurous Belgian cartoon character could serve as proof of concept for an ambitious global broadband service envisioned by Elon Musk. After days of delays, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the two small satellites, newly dubbed Tintin A and B by Musk (but known more formally as Microsat-2a and Microsat-2b), lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force base in California on Thursday morning. The recycled rocket’s main mission was to launch Spain’s larger Earth-imaging satellite, Paz.

It’s a fairly routine delivery for SpaceX these days.

But once again SpaceX CEO Musk has sparked the public’s imagination with plans to build something unprecedented. In this case, it’s two constellations of satellites, totaling over 11,000 orbiting craft in all, meant to deliver terrestrial-quality broadband to anywhere on the globe, be it an Arctic research station or an African village. The Federal Communications Commission last year granted permission for the operation of the Microsats, but Musk only publicly acknowledged the existence of the prototype satellites this week, saying on Twitter that the Starlink broadband service “will serve [the] least served.”

Today’s Falcon launch carries 2 SpaceX test satellites for global broadband.

If successful, Starlink constellation will serve least served.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 21, 2018

Paz and the pair of small satellites were successfully deployed about 11 minutes after the Falcon lifted off. Less than two hours later, Musk reported that the demonstration satellites had successfully deployed and begun communicating with Earth stations. He added that Tintin A and B “will attempt to beam ‘hello world’ in about 22 hours when they pass near [Los Angeles].” Also, the Wi-Fi password is “martians,” Musk joked.

The launch had been delayed three times from its initially scheduled date of Saturday, first to provide extra time to check out launch systems and an upgraded fairing, then because of high-altitude winds. The Falcon 9 booster used to deliver the three satellites to orbit was not recovered. It was previously flown on a mission in August and recovered to be reused for this launch.

SpaceX did try to use a new giant-net-on-a-boat setup that Musk announced after the launch of the Falcon Heavy earlier this month. It attempted to catch the fairing, which is the nose cone that protects the payload during ascent, but Musk reported that it missed its target by a few hundred meters, splashing down intact in the Pacific instead.

Tintin A and B are designed to communicate with each other through optical laser links and with ground stations on Earth. If all goes well and SpaceX receives approval from the FCC to begin launching its first full satellite constellation, we could see hundreds and then thousands of other small satellites being launched to a low Earth orbit to begin spinning up the broadband service.

Most satellite internet customers are currently served by a handful of satellites in high geostationary orbit, but Starlink’s lower-altitude constellations would instead use a swarm of satellites to provide low-latency connectivity that feels more like a cable or fiber-optic connection. All of this is likely several years and many more rocket launches down the road. Musk has said he hopes to see Starlink operational in the mid-2020s.

First published Feb.

22 at 6:58 a.m. PT.
Updated at 8:36 a.m. PT: Added details on the deployment and activation of the satellites and the result of the attempt to catch the fairing.

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