As wild as it sounds, the race is on to build a functioning space internet — and SpaceX is taking its biggest step yet with the launch of 60 (!) satellites tomorrow that will form the first wave of its Starlink constellation. It’s a hugely important and incredibly complex launch for the company — and should be well worth launching. A Falcon 9 with the flat Starlink test satellites (they’re “production design” but not final hardware) is vertical at launchpad 40 in Cape Canaveral. It has completed its static fire test and should have a window for launch tomorrow, weather permitting. Building satellite constellations hundreds or thousands strong is seen by several major companies and investors as the next major phase of connectivity — though it will take years and billions of dollars to do so. OneWeb, perhaps SpaceX’s biggest competitor in this area, just in funding after in March of a planned 650. Jeff Bezos has announced that Amazon will join the fray with the proposed 3,236-satellite Project Kuiper. Ubiquitilink has . And plenty of others are taking on smaller segments, like lower-cost or domain-specific networks. Needless to say it’s an exciting sector, but today’s launch is a particularly interesting one because it is so consequential for SpaceX. If this doesn’t go well, it could set Starlink’s plans back long enough to give competitors an edge. The satellites stacked inside the Falcon 9 payload fairing. “Tight fit,” pointed out CEO Elon Musk. SpaceX hasn’t explained exactly how the 60 satellites will be distributed to their respective orbits, but founder and CEO Elon Musk did note on Twitter that there’s “no dispenser.” Of course there must be some kind of dispenser — these things aren’t going to just jump off of their own accord. They’re stuffed in there like kernels on a corncob, and likely each have . A pair of prototype satellites, Tintin-A and B, have been in orbit since early last year, and have no doubt furnished a great deal of useful information to the Starlink program. But the 60 aboard tomorrow’s launch aren’t quite final hardware. Although Musk noted that they are “production design,” COO Gwynne Shotwell has said that they are still test models. “This next batch of satellites will really be a demonstration set for us to see the deployment scheme and start putting our network together,” she said at the Satellite 2019 conference in Washington, D.C. — they reportedly lack inter-satellite links but are otherwise functional. I’ve asked SpaceX for more information on this. It makes sense: If you’re planning to put thousands (perhaps as many as 12,000 eventually) of satellites into orbit, you’ll need to test at scale and with production hardware. And for those worried about the possibility of overpopulation in orbit — it’s absolutely something to consider, but many of these satellites will be ; at 550 kilometers up, these tiny satellites will naturally de-orbit in a handful of years. Even OneWeb’s, at 1,100 km, aren’t that high up — geosynchronous satellites are above 35,000 km. That doesn’t mean there’s no risk at all, but it does mean failed or abandoned satellites won’t stick around for long. Just don’t expect to boot up your Starlink connection any time soon. It would take a minimum of 6 more launches like this one — a total of 420, a happy coincidence for Musk — to provide “minor” coverage. This would likely only be for testing as well, not commercial service. That would need 12 more launches, and dozens more to bring it to the point where it can compete with terrestrial broadband. Even if it will take years to pull off, that is the plan. And by that time others will have spun up their operations as well. It’s an exciting time for space and for connectivity. No launch time has been set as of this writing, so takeoff is just planned for Wednesday the 15th at present. As there’s no need to synchronize the launch with the movement of any particular celestial body, T-0 should be fairly flexible and SpaceX will likely just wait for the best weather and visibility. Delays are always a possibility, though, so don’t be surprised if this is pushed out to later in the week. As always you’ll be able to watch the launch , but I’ll update this post with the live video link as soon as it’s available.
Kymeta installed flat-panel antennas shaped like white stop signs on top of TEPSA interprovincial buses in Peru. (Kymeta Photo) Kymeta Corp., the Redmond, Wash.-based company backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and other investors, has demonstrated the performance of its flat-panel satellite antennas in an unlikely setting: on top of buses traveling throughout Peru. With the aid of partners including Intelsat, Cubic Telecom and Cradlepoint, Kymeta worked with Airbus to create a pilot project called SmartBus. The project involved outfitting interprovincial buses operated by TEPSA — the Peruvian analog to Greyhound Lines — with Kymeta’s satellite terminals. SmartBus is designed to gather up-to-the-minute data on road safety and other indicators to improve Peru’s transportation system while connecting people in remote areas of the country. The system leverages satellite bandwidth capacity from Intelsat, cellular coverage from Cubic Telecom and a software-defined WAN solution from Cradlepoint to establish real-time data connections along a 460-mile bus route through Peru. The World Bank and Peru’s Ministry of Transport and Communications lended crucial support to SmartBus. “This project is making a tangible contribution to development by connecting people in an extremely difficult geographical region of Peru,” Alberto Rodríguez, director of the World Bank for Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and Peru, said in a news release. “The critical insights we unearth from this trial will be used by research centers, universities and leading technology companies, helping them to identify problems and possible solutions relating to road safety, meteorology and transport logistics.” Kymeta said the SmartBus pilot project could open the way to a variety of industry applications for its mobile connectivity platform, including commercial agriculture, fleet management, public transportation and emergency response. “We are an end-to-end services provider with reliable mobile connectivity that also captures mission-critical data for a variety of industries,” said Benjamin Posthuma, Kymeta’s connectivity solutions manager. “With Kymeta, users no longer need to choose between satellite and cellular – they are just connected.” Kymeta also announced the release of a white paper titled The white paper highlights two field trials demonstrating how satellite-cellular hybrid networks can add resiliency to communication systems for first responders in the face of infrastructure failures and network congestion.
Last month I wrote about , which promised, through undisclosed means, it was on the verge of providing a sort of global satellite-based roaming service. But how, I asked? (Wait, they told me.) Turns out our phones are capable of a lot more than we think: they can reach satellites acting as cell towers in orbit just fine, and the company just proved it. Utilizing a constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit, Ubiquitilink claimed during a briefing at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona that pretty much any phone from the last decade should be able to text and do other low-bandwidth tasks from anywhere, even in the middle of the ocean or deep in the Himalayas. Literally (though eventually) anywhere and any time. Surely not, I hear you saying. My phone, that can barely get a signal on some blocks of my neighborhood, or in that one corner of the living room, can’t possibly send and receive data from space… can it? “That’s the great thing — everybody’s instinct indicates that’s the case,” said Ubiquitilink founder Charles Miller. “But if you look at the fundamentals of the RF [radio frequency] link, it’s easier than you think.” The issue, he explained, isn’t really that the phone lacks power. The limits of reception and wireless networks are defined much more by architecture and geology than plain physics. When an RF transmitter, even a small one, has a clear shot straight up, it can travel very far indeed. Space towers It’s not quite as easy as that, however; there are changes that need to be made, just not anything complex or expensive like special satellite antennas or base stations. If you know that modifying the phone is a non-starter, you have to work with the hardware you’ve got. But everything else can be shaped accordingly, Miller said – three things in particular. Lower the orbit. There are limits to what’s practical as far as the distance involved and the complications it brings. The orbit neds to be under 500 kilometers, or about 310 miles. That’s definitely low — geosynchronous is ten times higher — but it’s not crazy either. Some of SpaceX’s Starlink communications satellites . Narrow the beam. The low orbit and other limitations mean that a given satellite can only cover a small area at a time. This isn’t just blasting out data like a GPS satellite, or communicating with a specialized ground system like a dish that can reorient itself. So on the ground you’ll be looking at a 45 degree arc, meaning you can use a satellite that’s within a 45-degree-wide cone above you. Lengthen the wavelength. Here simple physics come into play: generally, the shorter the wavelength, the less transparent the atmosphere is to it. So you want to use bands on the long (lower Hz) side of the radio spectrum to make sure you maximize propagation. Having adjusted for these things, an ordinary phone can contact and trade information with a satellite with its standard wireless chip and power budget. But there’s one more obstacle, one Ubiquitilink spent a great deal of time figuring out. Although a phone and satellite can reach one another reliably, a delay and doppler shift in the signal due to the speeds and distances involved are inescapable. Turns out the software that runs towers and wireless chips isn’t suited for this; the timings built into the code assume the distance will be less than 30 km, since the curvature of the Earth generally prevents transmitting further than that. So Ubiquitilink modified the standard wireless stacks to account for this, something Miller said no one else had done. “After my guys came back and told me they’d done this, I said, well let’s go validate it,” he told me. “We went to NASA and JPL and asked what they thought. Everybody’s gut reaction was ‘well, this won’t work,’ but then afterwards they just said ‘well, it works.’ ” The theory became a reality earlier this year after Ubiquitilink launched their prototype satellites. They successfully made a two-way 2G connection between an ordinary ground device and the satellite, proving that the signal not only gets there and back, but that its doppler and delay distortions can be rectified on the fly. “Our first tests demonstrated that we offset the doppler shift and time delay. Everything else is leveraging commercial software,” Miller said, though he quickly added: “To be clear, there’s plenty more work to be done, but it isn’t anything that’s new technology. It’s good solid hardcore engineering, building nanosats and that sort of thing.” Since his previous company was and he’s been in the business for decades, he’s qualified to be confident on this part. It’ll be a lot of work and a lot of money, but they should be launching their first real satellites this summer. (And it’s all patented, he noted.) Global roaming The way the business will work is remarkably simple given the complexity of the product. Because the satellites operate on modified but mostly ordinary off-the-shelf software and connect to phones with no modifications necessary, Ubiquitilink will essentially work as a worldwide roaming operator that mobile networks will pay for access to. (Disclosure: Verizon, obviously a mobile network, owns TechCrunch, and for all I know will use this tech eventually. It’s not involved with any editorial decisions.) Normally, if you’re a subscriber of network X, and you’re visiting a country where X has no coverage, X will have an agreement with network Y, which connects you for a fee. There are hundreds of these deals in play at any given time, and Ubiquitilink would just be one more — except its coverage will eventually be global. Maybe you can’t reach X or Y, you’ll always be able to reach U. The speeds and services available will depend on what mobile networks want. Not everyone wants or needs the same thing, of course, and a 3G fallback might be practical where an LTE connection is less so. But the common denominator will be data enough to send and receive text at the least. It’s worth noting also that this connection will be in some crucial ways indistinguishable from other connections: it won’t affect encryption, for instance. This will of course necessitate at least a thousand satellites, by Miller’s count. But in the meantime limited service will also be available in the form of timed passes — you’ll have no signal for 55 minutes, then signal for five, during which you can send and receive what may be a critical text or location. This is envisioned as a specialty service at first, then as more satellites join the constellation, that window expands until it’s 24/7 and across the whole face of the planet, and it becomes a normal consumer good. Emergency fallback While your network provider will probably charge you the usual arm and leg for global roaming on demand (it’s their prerogative), there are some services Ubiquitilink will provide for free; the value of a global communication system is not lost on Miller. “Nobody should ever die because the phone in their pocket doesn’t have signal,” he said. “If you break down in the middle of Death Valley you should be able to text 911. Our vision is this is a universal service for emergency responders and global E-911 texting. We’re not going to charge for that.” An emergency broadcast system when networks are down is also being planned — power outages following disasters are times when people are likely to panic or be struck by a follow-up disaster like a tsunami or flooding, and reliable communications at those times could save thousands and vastly improve recovery efforts. “We don’t want to make money off saving people’s lives, that’s just a benefit of implementing this system, and the way it should be,” Miller said. It’s a whole lot of promises, but the team and the tech seem capable of backing them up. Initial testing is complete and birds are in the air — now it’s a matter of launching the next thousand or so.
LeoStella technicians work on the first of 20 satellites to be produced by the Tukwila, Wash.-based startup. (GeekWire Photo) When you hear the words “satellite factory,” ‘s operations in a nondescript office park south of Seattle probably isn’t the image that comes to mind. But that’s exactly what it is. By the middle of summer, the Tukwila, Wash.-based startup aims to pop out the first of a run of 20 small satellites. That initial production will go to in Seattle, which operates a constellation of Earth-imaging satellites and sells the insights to business clients. LeoStella CEO said the Tukwila location fulfilled three main criteria: it was close to BlackSky, affordable, and easy to get a building permit. Chris Chautard will step down as LeoStella CEO next month when Mike Hettich will take over. (GeekWire Photo) The startup, which launched less than a year ago, will manufacture small, low-cost satellites for Earth observation and telecommunications. Chautard said the satellites were designed to be simple and flexible. Chautard will step down as CEO next month, when , a vice president at Kirkland, Wash.-based aerospace firm Astronics, will take over. LeoStella’s structure is a 50-50 transatlantic joint venture between two entities: Seattle-based , which owns BlackSky. , an aerospace venture between France’s and Italy’s . Thales in Spaceflight last year as part of a $150 million fundraising round. The companies said a “big chunk” went to forming LeoStella. The basic pitch around small satellites is that they’ll let more companies get to space cheaper. With its purchase of LeoStella’s satellites, BlackSky is betting that what’s most important isn’t the size of your satellites that counts. It’s how you use them. “The economics of a high performing small satellite constellation are going to unlock a whole world of new data and information services for a much broader global market,” said BlackSky CEO . “Satellites are a great enabler. But ultimately, this is about delivering timely information so people can make relevant decisions that are going to impact their business,” he added. A satellite developed by BlackSky sits on the floor of LeoStella’s manufacturing room. (GeekWire Photo) LeoStella is actively looking for customers outside of BlackSky. The company has 34 employees and lots of empty desks, though it did not elaborate on hiring plans. LeoStella is already working on the design of its third-generation satellite. Once it is at full capacity, the startup will produce 30 small satellites per year and will add telecom satellites to its offerings. LeoStella uses parts from 20 different suppliers, including L3 GCS, Aitech Defense Systems and Seattle’s Jemco. When it comes to satellites, small is a relative term. LeoStella’s initial satellites will weigh between 50 to 150 kilograms (110 to 330 pounds). Other satellite makers are investigating tough scientific questions with . LeoStella’s Earth-imaging satellites were created to revisit heavily populated mid-latitude regions frequently, taking in 4×6 kilometer images. They have a 36-month service life. LeoStella’s first satellite should launch in late 2019. BlackSky said it will have 16 satellites in its constellation by early 2021 and hopes to eventually grow that number to 60.