Brand New Starlink Dish To Reduce Power Yet Improve Efficiency & Density

A Starlink user terminal in the snow. Image: Steve Golson/YouTube

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Within a week of seeking the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) permission to test a new Starlink user terminal, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) has filed another application (first spotted by PCMag!)with the regulatory body. This application is similar to the one it filed in 2019, and it asks the FCC to grant SpaceX the authority to operate one million new Starlink consumer dishes in the U.S. These new dishes will feature a smaller antenna, a lower power output and will actively search for and communicate with the orbiting satellites for a longer time.

Starlink's Second Generation User Terminals Will Use Less Power But Spend More Time Communicating With Satellites

The application was filed with the FCC's International Bureau yesterday, and it features a handful of changes over the one SpaceX filed in 2019 for the user terminals currently part of the Starlink beta testing program.

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In the narrative, the company states that the new terminals will use phased-array beamforming and digital signal processing to communicate with the satellites. At the same time, it also informs the commission that the dishes will "do so with a slightly smaller antenna than previously used."

Whether this smaller antenna will be similar to the one we discovered in another filing last week is unclear. Still, given the proximity of the two filings, it's likely that SpaceX is looking to test the terminals before it rolls them out to the general public.

The new Starlink user terminal application narrative also lists down its power output, which will be nearly half over the current dishes beta testers are using. Additionally, while the experimental terminal in the earlier filing and the currently used terminals will transmit data at 62.5 MHz of bandwidth, the second-generation terminal will transmit it at 60.5 Hz.

Key details about the new terminal are present in an exhibit of SpaceX's filing. Image: FCC File SES-LIC-INTR2021-02141

Another difference is in the highest transmit power of the second-generation user terminals. This stands at 2.44 Watts, almost half of the old terminals' output of 4.03 Watts. Additionally, since the new antennas are smaller, their aperture efficiency rises to 73% over the previous value of 56.7%.

Crucially, it appears that the minimum and maximum power of the new antennas will be the same, i.e., 2.44 Watts. This is evidenced by the fact that not only is the minimum power output missing from the filing for the second-generation terminals, but their radiation analysis does not list down densities at boresight, which are calculated using minimum power levels. These calculations are present in the analysis for the terminals currently under use. It is also important to note that despite lower output power, the newer terminals will have higher densities than their predecessors due to a longer transit duty cycle.

In radiofrequency terminology, a transit duty cycle refers to the percentage of time a transmitter is actively sending out data. For the second-generation Starlink terminals, this increases to 14% over the previous terminals of 11%. This is a crucial upgrade, which will ensure that even though the new terminals have a lower output, they are actively communicating with the satellites for longer.

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SpaceX has applied for a blanket license seeking authorization of one million new terminals as it did with the previous terminals. The lower power terminals should form an integral part of the Starlink constellation, especially after a recent FCC approval allowing SpaceX to lower its satellite altitudes and its plans to insert future satellites into even lower orbits. Whether the current terminals will be functional after the new ones hit the shelves is uncertain, but given manufacturing costs and market size, future users will likely receive the second-generation dishes, and those with the older dishes will be provided an option to chose to upgrade.

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