Why on Earth is SpaceX trying Broadband?

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Launch of PAZ satellite.

Launch of the PAZ Mission at Vandenberg Air Force Base

Last week, SpaceX launched another Falcon 9 rocket as part of their PAZ mission, containing a Spanish military Earth observation satellite operated by the Hispasat company. However, the focus of the launch was not on this payload but on their own secondary payload of the two MicroSat-1 satellites, now referred to as Tintin-A and Tintin-B.

The launch of these two satellites marks the beginning of test flights as part of their StarLink program, which aims to provide a global satellite-based broadband system at low cost. Now, satellite-based broadband is nothing new, and first was conducted by Boeing with their e-BIRD program in late 2003. However, it has always been troubled with high latency and connectivity issues  – but SpaceX plans to fix this by sending a “constellation” of satellites into Low Earth Orbit and later into Very Low Earth Orbit to ensure high connection speeds and to minimise the regions without signal. The major advantage of such a system is that it can cover vast regions without the need for extensive infrastructure and only requires the use of a satellite dish – making it ideal for non-urban and secluded areas, or countries without the network infrastructure we have within the U.K. and elsewhere.

The question to ask now is why SpaceX is undergoing such an enormous project; according to their FCC filings they hope to deploy a total of 4,425 satellites1 as part of the project. No doubt it will help many people in rural regions who are plagued by spotty connection and high pings, but the ultimate aim for the company was to develop technologies to take humanity to Mars, not to cure connectivity problems in the countryside. So, is this just some elaborate scheme of procrastination? Of course not. As with everything in the world of business, it all comes back down to one factor: money.

Exposure of the PAZ launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base

As is expected, getting humans to Mars will require a lot of money and, while no specific cost has been cited, the estimates lie anywhere between $40m and $1 trillion. With SpaceX’s developments on reusable rocketry and, currently, their fantastic track record of recovering 23 first-stage boosters as of 22 February 20182, with another recovery at sea which was unfortunately scrapped, along with plans to start saving the second-stage boosters, the possibility of fully reusable rockets is getting a closer with every launch.

So, in all, SpaceX hopes their StarLink program will contribute greatly in terms of finance to their upcoming projects and of course their final goal of putting humanity on Mars – and why not help cure bad Internet connectivity on Earth too while they’re at it?

  1. FCC Public Notice (Download), 26 May 2017 
  2. Space News, 6 February 2018 – 24 in total but one destroyed after landing at sea