SpaceX’s First Laser-Equipped Starlink Batch Part Of Record Setting Satellite Launch
As part of its record-breaking launch yesterday, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) launched 143 small satellites into orbit. Included in this payload were ten of the company's own Starlink satellites that will provide internet connectivity to the polar regions of the Earth. SpaceX was granted authority to launch these satellites by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) at the start of this month, as the company needed the body's permission to launch them with modified parameters that are part of its third modification request to change Starlink altitude and Earth station elevation angles.
Following the launch, SpaceX CEO and chief engineer Mr. Elon Musk took to Twitter to reveal more details about the payload following questions from observers. According to Mr. Musk, the ten satellites are SpaceX's first operational spacecraft that will employ laser beams to share data between them, as they follow an experimental pair that the company launched last year for testing Starlink satellite laser connectivity.
SpaceX Will Roll Out Second Generation Starlink Satellites In 2022 Confirms Musk
Images of the ten Starlink sent to orbit yesterday were shared by SpaceX on its Twitter feed, and soon after, commentators asked Musk about the black appendages present at the end of the spacecraft and whether they were intended to beam data between the spacecraft to overcome the complexities of communicating at polar latitudes.
In response, the executive confirmed that the appendages were indeed lasers that would allow the Starlinks to share data between themselves. He then proceeded to provide more details about SpaceX's plans for launching laser-equipped Starlink satellites and stated that the lasers will ensure that no ground stations are required to provide internet access to remote regions.
For the uninitiated, SpaceX's current internet network requires three nodes to function. These are the user terminals (dishes), the satellites and the Earth stations. The users communicate with the satellites which then relay the data to the stations which then proceed to communicate with internet servers. The presence of lasers on the satellites removes the need for these stations to an extent as it enables the spacecraft to share data between them and cover a larger distance in the process.
SpaceX tested Starlinks with lasers last year - a fact that was revealed by the company during the live stream of its 11th Starlink launch which took place on September 3, 2020. During the event, senior systems certification engineer at SpaceX Kate Tice revealed that:
"Recently as the Starlink team completed a test of two satellites in orbit that are equipped with our inter-satellite links which we call space lasers. With these space lasers, the starlink satellites were able to transfer hundreds of gigabytes of data. Once these space lasers are fully deployed, Starlink will be one of the fastest options to transmit data all over the world"
SpaceX's chief has now confirmed that his company will launch more laser Starlinks in 2022. According to him:
All sats launched next year will have laser links. Only our polar sats have lasers this year & are v0.9.
Judging by his words, it appears as if lasers are the only upgrades on the new satellites over their predecessors. According to plans that SpaceX has shared with the FCC, the company's Gen2 (second-generation) will not only feature lasers but also altitude changes among other upgrades.
A portion of the text of its application narrative describing the new spacecraft to the Commission reads as follows:
SpaceX is proposing its Gen2 System of 30,000 NGSO satellites. More than 85% of this system will operate at very low altitudes below 400 km, using eight total orbital altitudes ranging from 328 km to 614 km. . . .By operating at low and very low altitudes, the SpaceX Gen2 System will enable smaller spot beams and greater satellite diversity.
. . .SpaceX has designed its system to achieve the following objectives:
- High capacity: Each initial Gen2 satellite will have three times the data capacity of SpaceX’s current satellites. And just as it has done with its first-generation system, SpaceX will continue to iteratively improve the satellites over the course of the multi-year deployment of the system, which will further increase capacity.
- High adaptability: The system leverages phased array technology to dynamically steer a large pool of beams to focus capacity to meet consumer demand. Optical inter-satellite links [LASERS] will permit flexible routing of traffic on-orbit. Further, the constellation ensures that frequencies can be reused effectively across different satellites to enhance the flexibility, agility, capacity, and robustness of the overall system.
- True broadband services: The system will be able to provide high-throughput speeds, with latencies under 50 milliseconds.
- Remote/Polar coverage: The network is designed to bring to remote and Polar Regions the same quality service that has been traditionally available only to urban customers.
- Low cost: SpaceX is designing the overall system from the ground up with cost-
effectiveness and reliability in mind, from the design and manufacturing of the space and ground-based elements, to the launch and deployment of the system using SpaceX launch services, development of the user terminals, and end-user subscription rates.
The deployment comes as Starlink and its users terminal continue to receive criticism from competitors for using up precious frequency bands - a use that they believe could serve better purposes and infringes on their own plans. SpaceX's goals for Starlink include not only bringing internet overage to polar regions but also providing funds for its Starship launch vehicle system and creating an internet network on Mars.