Starlink Will Work At -30°C, SpaceX Reducing Satellite Laser Costs & Other Key Details Revealed


Over the weekend, representatives from SpaceX took to Reddit for answering user queries about the company's Starlink satellite-based internet service. Starlink is currently in its first stage, with limited public data and due to this, questions about the service's capabilities, its coverage, future and future beta programs are floating around. On this front, we narrowed down some of the details which cover the Starlink user terminals, connectivity details and more.

A line of Starlink satellites making their way over Europe in April 2020. Image: EarthSky

1. SpaceX will deliver Starlink coverage only on the address that users have signed up with

Given that Starlink is truly wireless when it comes to internet connectivity with backend servers, one of the big perks of having the service is to use it on-the-go. But since right now SpaceX is only in the early stage beta testing of the service, coverage will not be universal. In other words,  users that have signed up for the beta service and have received their user terminal will only be able to use the service at the address that they have signed up with.

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Naturally, since SpaceX is yet to fully deploy the satellite constellation and receive permanent authority from the FCC to operate its ground stations, it isn't feasible for the company to provide universal coverage for the time being. More importantly, the provider is also using the current program to evaluate its service and roll out the kinks, and therefore, enabling full coverage carries with it the potential to create more problems which in turn can potentially damage Starlink's brand image.

However, multiple service addresses will be available once software updates and more satellites are rolled out promised the SpaceX representative in the Q&A session. Additionally, don't lose hope of complete mobility, as once sufficient quantities for the two parameters have been met, coverage should expand to both multiple addresses and "places that don't even have addresses."

A stack of Starlink satellites before deploying in low earth orbit (LEO).

2. SpaceX is working to reduce the cost of manufacturing lasers for Starlink connectivity

The first generation of the satellites works by connecting with the user terminal, relaying this data to a ground station and then sending the data back to the terminal. This naturally affects speed and latency since an additional node is required for transmitting data. In the future, SpaceX could remove the need for a ground station in certain use cases as it plans on equipping the second generation of its satellites with lasers.

On this front, the company has already tested out laser connectivity for its satellites. It revealed this back in September, and the results did sound promising. However, according to the representative, right now mass producing the lasers (remember, most of SpaceX's manufacturing is done in-house, a fact that has let it avoid the traditional pitfalls of the astronautic launch sector where countless contractors are involved) and bringing the costs of them are two constraints that have not been overcome.

3. Lowest certified temperature for user terminal is -30°C with use in high winds not recommended.

The user terminal will receive upgrades over the course of the next few to improve facilitating snow meltability as winter arrives and it can operate in temperatures as low as -30°C and exceeding 40°C. SpaceX has also tested the terminal at 45°C but the terminal is not certified to operate at this range. Additionally, the SpaceX representative also confirmed that the terminal is not designed to operate in high winds and should be brought indoors in such a circumstance.

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A Starlink user terminal that will allow users to connect to the orbiting satellites. These terminals and their usage of the 12GHz band for downlink is a point of contention between SpaceX and terrestrial service providers. Image: darkpenguin22/Reddit

4. Starlink's beta program will expand access in January

SpaceX plans to expand Starlink's beta program in late January which will increase the number of users that will be able to sign up for the service. This revelation follows comments that the company's C.E.O. Elon Musk made earlier on Twitter and by the looks of it, there should be no new beta inclusions in the time from now until late January, but this tidbit is based on conjecture on our part. Coverage should improve should SpaceX be able to launch satellites into polar orbit next month to provide coverage to remote areas such as Alaska.

Additionally, for now, there are no data caps for the beta program confirmed by the company on Reddit but similar restrictions might make their way in the future as the number of users increases.

5. User terminal obstruction will impact service

When using their terminals, users should make sure that the antenna's view of the sky is unobstructed, confirmed by the company representative. This is due to the high velocity of the satellite traveling in low Earth orbit, and due to the limited number of satellites that are currently operational. Additionally, SpaceX expects to improve this via rolling out software updates and launching more satellites into orbit. Users are also recommended to keep 53° North and South clear in the meantime.

A rendered trio of Starlink satellites in orbit. Image: KCRG

6. User terminal power consumption will improve through software updates

One issue for the user terminals that has surfaced is their power consumption, which also increases if the terminals have to melt snow. At this front, SpaceX is working on updates to let the terminal go into a power savings mode to reduce consumption and by the looks of it, future terminal designs also have reduction as a key goal.

Additionally, users will soon be able to use IPv6 (Internet Protocol Version 6) addresses with Starlink, as SpaceX is currently testing them out. These addresses are what serve as a terminal's identification on a network, and IPv6 addresses, due to their inherent characteristics, have certain advantages such as a unique address for each user.

7. User terminal design, satellite maneuvering among key problems that SpaceX overcame when designing and deploying Starlink

The representative also shared some difficulties that SpaceX has had to face when designing and deploying Starlink. These include designing the satellite and the dish, which use phased-array antennas. These antennas are similar to ones that are employed by modern fighter jets, and they use on-board antennas to guide their beams directionally without moving the antenna itself. By the looks of it, both the user terminal and the satellite use these antennas as opposed to beliefs that only the terminal employs.

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. Elevation angles for these stations are a point of hot contention between Amazon and SpaceX. Image: villete/Reddit

Another area where the company has had to rack its brains is when operating the Starlink constellation. To overcome orbital placement, SpaceX has automated the entire process which feeds the final location to the satellite, leaving it to the spacecraft to maneuver itself. Additionally, SpaceX also updates the satellites with data on nearby spacecraft daily, with the rest being left to the satellites themselves. At this front, the company is also being helped by the United States Space Force's (USSF) 18th Space Control Squadron that is responsible for 24/7 space surveillance.

8. Starlink user terminal scans sky each time when powered on for connecting to the network

The Starlink user terminal does not feature pre-hand knowledge of the constellation when it is turned on. Instead, it scans the sky after being powered up, locks on to the nearest satellite and then downloads the most up-to-date schedule once a connection has been established.

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