Starlink Speeds Ahead With Vehicle Tests Covering Air, Sea & Land!

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Space Exploration Technologies Corp.'s (SpaceX) Starlink satellite-based internet connectivity service is moving quickly to test connectivity on board all types of vehicles. Starlink is currently in its beta-test phase, with SpaceX having launched roughly one-third of the full constellation's first phase of low-Earth orbit small satellites. Its users connect to the orbiting satellites with user terminals or dishes, which are geographically locked to their coverage regions.

A major question surrounding Starlink is whether these dishes can be used on moving vehicles, and judging by its filings with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), SpaceX is busy making plans for testing out its service on all types of vehicles. These include ships, aircraft and land vehicles, and the company has already been granted an extension to test Starlink on an aircraft as part of its work with the United States Air Force (USAF).

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Starlink's Extensive Testing Plans Revealed In FCC Filings

Since Starlink's primary objective is to provide internet connectivity to far-flung areas left unserved by traditional broadband providers, mobile use, especially on ships, is a natural extension of the service's use case. SpaceX already uses Starlink on its drone ships sent out to recover Falcon 9 first stage boosters through landing, and an application that the company has submitted to the FCC seeks to extend this.

The details from a special temporary authority request that SpaceX made at the end of last month reveal that SpaceX plans to test two user terminals on "a maritime vessel while embarked in U.S. territorial waters" for two months starting from September and ending in October. Additionally, and more interestingly, SpaceX filed two test narratives with the Commission for these tests. The first of these outlines that the terminals will be mounted "aboard a maritime vessel while embarked in the Labrador Sea and North Atlantic[emphasis ours]from 1 September 2021 to 31 October 2021" while the excerpt from the second can be seen at the start of this paragraph.

An excerpt from SpaceX's Special Temporary Authority request for the maritime vessel test made to the FCC late last month.

According to SpaceX, the test will demonstrate the Starlink user terminal's ability to function as s "an earth station in motion in new geographic locations and sea states." Additionally, the company also states that the test "represents a notable incremental increase in the scope of previous tests as this experiment enables a more taxing set of environmental conditions than the relatively nominal sea states suitable for rocket booster recovery operations." 

Sea vessels are not the only vehicles that will test the Starlink terminals. Another filing also made at the end of June requested the FCC to let SpaceX test the Starlink user terminals on both vessels and vehicles. The land tests will take place within 250 kilometers of Hawthorne, California and Redmond, Washington, while the maritime tests will also take place within 250 kilometers of U.S. territorial waters.

As SpaceX outlines in its narrative for the request, the tests will enable SpaceX to deeply understand the performance of its user terminals and its satellite constellation. The company will also use a maximum of twenty Starlink user dishes for this test.

Starlink Ready To Turn On Laser Satellites For Internet Coverage 

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

In addition to testing Starlink on land and sea, SpaceX has also secured another extension to the temporary authority for conducting tests on aircraft in partnership with the USAF. SpaceX originally requested the authority in July last year, and the FCC extended the permit in May. Now, the company has been awarded another extension that broadens the scope of these tests, originally intended to be carried out on an aircraft flying at a maximum altitude of 40,000 feet.

While the original test narrative covered only two ground sites and an aircraft, the updated narrative, which was also approved in the earlier extension, also includes combining the data from the aircraft and the ground sites with that received from a moving vehicle. SpaceX first tests the equipment on the ground as part of the tests and then mounts a custom terminal on an aircraft.

The terminal mounted on the aircraft is not the Starlink user dish being used by the beta testers. Instead, it is manufactured by Ball Aerospace, and SpaceX will mount it on the aircraft after testing its full range of static angles on the ground.

After the tests, the company will use "a custom installation kit consisting of mechanical plates for the low-profile antennas and a fairing to reduce wind drag in order to limit the impact to the aircraft for this installation,"  according to the latest test narrative.