SpaceX Looks To Test Starlink In Alaska As It Gears For Commercial Launch

Ramish Zafar
A render of a SpaceX Starlink satellite with its transmitters pointing towards the earth.

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Astronautic launch services provider SpaceX is readying up to test its Starlink network in the polar region of Alaska, South Carolina and Tennessee. SpaceX, which is busy building the constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) intends to launch Starlink soon and use funds from the network to fund building super-heavy-lift launch vehicles that will facilitate deep space exploration.

SpaceX Still Hopes To Launch Starlink Later This Year Reveals International Bureau Filing

In its filing with the FCC's International Bureau, SpaceX has highlighted plans to expand Starlink testing across three more U.S. states. The company was granted permission by the Bureau in July to test its ground stations in six states, and it secured approval for testing in three more states in July and in August.

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Through these tests, SpaceX intends to verify the uplink and downlink capabilities of its Earth stations. These stations are the part of three essential components that the network will rely on for connectivity, especially until it's populated with the first generation of Starlink satellites. To allow users to connect to the satellite internet, SpaceX will provide them with terminals that will relay data to the orbiting spacecraft. The satellites will then beam this data to the user terminal, which will complete the link between the Starlink user and internet servers.

In its second generation of Starlink satellites, SpaceX will partially remove the need for these Earth stations. The company intends to achieve this through intra-optical (laser-based) communication between the satellites, and to that effect, it has confirmed that the feature has been tested on two satellites with significant volumes of data being transferred between them.

As has been the case with the previous tests, should SpaceX secure approval for testing Starlink in Tracy City, Tennessee, Gaffney, South Carolina and Kuparuk, Alaska, the company will utilize the 17, 18 and 19GHz frequency spectrum for downlink and the 28 and 29GHz spectrum for uplink communications with the satellites.

SpaceX's Starlink Earth Station in Conrad, Montana. The company filed for the station's license in August last year and the FCC granted its approval a month later in September. Image: villete/Reddit

While such tests are routine for the pre-launch preparations for any network, this particular application, when granted, will allow SpaceX to test Starlink in Alaska. In this state, the company hopes that latency (the time lag for an internet signal to travel back and forth from a server) will be below 50 milliseconds should it be allowed to change key orbital parameters of its satellite constellation. These changes cover altitude reduction, orbital planes and orbital inclination.

Specifically, in its modification, SpaceX increases the inclination angles of satellite orbits which will allow it to better serve polar regions including Alaska. These angles are taken in reference to the equator with angles in the range of 90ª marking orbits that serve regions near the poles.

The Earth stations will use beam steering with phased-array antennas to communicate with the satellites. Details revealed in the patent for the stations' antennas that the company was granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) earlier this month suggest that the antenna elements will be managed via a controller that will determine to turn them on or off relative to the signal strength of the satellite that they are communicating with. The controller will also use the Global Positioning System (GPS) to determine the positions of the orbiting Starlink satellites.

SpaceX's application to the FCC also confirms that the company still plans to commercially launch the network later this year. It has already secured the FCC's approval for a wireless router for the internet service and plans to launch at least 120 satellites into orbit every month.

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