It will eventually become the worlds largest satellite constellation
SpaceXs plan to launch thousands of satellites into orbit around the Earth has been approved by the US Federal Communications Commission.
The aerospace company owned by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk could launch the first of what will eventually become a super-constellation of close to 12,000 satellites as soon as May.
Known collectively as Starlink, these satellites will providecheap and reliable internet access worldwide- including in places that struggle with current infrastructure.
SpaceXgained approval to launch the constellationin November 2018. However, it has since tweaked its plans to put some of the satellites at lower altitudes.
Rival companies working on their own low-Earth-orbit constellations – including the international OneWeb consortium and Kepler Communications – raised concerns about SpaceXs proposals.
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They said the readjusted orbits could increase the potential for interference with their planned communications systems.
Other objections focused on whether SpaceXs lower-orbiting satellites could pose a collision risk.
However, the FCC (which is the equivalent of Ofcom in the UK) has accepted SpaceXs reassurances and overruled the objections, giving its approval to the revised plans.
SpaceX claims, because all its satellites have propulsion and are maneuverable to prevent collisions, they are considered to pose zero risk to any other satellites in this orbital region, the FCC said in itsruling.
This clears the way for SpaceX to send the first few hundred satellites into orbit next month. The company is required to put half of its constellations satellites into operation by 2024.
Starlink production is well underway, and the first group of satellites have already arrived at the launch site for processing, said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceXs president and chief operating officer.
Theres nothing new about using satellites for internet access, but the problem traditionally has been that these services dont offer a way to upload data quickly.
Their distance from Earth also means that the time it takes a signal to travel from you to the satellite and then to its destination is longer than normal earthbound communications.
For normal broadband you might see delays of 20 milliseconds (ms) while geostationary satellites have 550ms of delay. As a result, satellite broadband is usually only used when there is no other option.
However SpaceXs Starlink satellites will be placed in a much lower orbit – some of them just 340 miles above the surface of the Earth.
This will significantly reduce the latency – with SpaceX claiming the delay will be only 15ms.
The downside is that the satellites will not be in a geosynchronous orbit, so far more of them are needed to provide blanket coverage. They will also only last a few years before burning up.
If successful however, Starlink could be a valuable investment for SpaceX, as demand for internet access is huge and there are lots of places on Earth where fixed-line broadband isnt practical.
The company claims an initial version of its Starlink service will start offering high-speed broadband in 2020.
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