SpaceX Outlines Plan to Launch 12,000 Satellites to Provide Global Broadband

The U.S. Air Force’s 45th Space Wing supported SpaceX’s successful launch of the EchoStar XXIII spacecraft aboard a Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center March 16 at 2 a.m. EDT. (Credit: SpaceX webcast)

SpaceX Vice President Patricia Cooper outlined the company’s plans to provide global broadband with 12,000 satellites to the Senate Commerce, Science and Technology Committee on Wednesday.

The initial constellation would consist of 4,425 satellites operating in 83 orbital planes at altitudes ranging from 1,110 km to 1,325 km. The satellites would provide broadband and other communications services in the Ka- and Ku-band spectrum.

“To implement the system, SpaceX will utilize the availability of significantly more powerful computing and software capabilities, which will enable SpaceX to allocate broadband resources in real time, placing capacity where it is most needed and directing energy away from areas where it might cause interference to other systems, either in space or on the ground,” Cooper said in her prepared testimony. [Prepared Statement — PDF]

“Because the satellites will beam directly to gateways or user terminals, the infrastructure needed on the ground—particularly in rural or remote areas—is substantially reduced, essentially addressing the “last mile” challenge and helping to close the digital divide,” she added. “In other words, the common challenges associated with siting, digging trenches, laying fiber, and dealing with property rights are materially alleviated through a space-based broadband network.”

The company plans to launch two test satellites at the end of this year and in early 2018. SpaceX would begin launching operational satellites beginning in 2019, with all 4,425 spacecraft being in orbit by 2024.

“For the end consumer, SpaceX user terminals—essentially, a relatively small flat panel, roughly the size of a laptop—will use similar phased array technologies to allow for highly directive, steered antenna beams that track the system’s low-Earth orbit satellites,” Cooper said in her testimony. “In space, the satellites will communicate with each other using optical inter-satellite links, in effect creating a “mesh network” flying overhead that will enable seamless network management and continuity of service.”

SpaceX has filed a separate application with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch a constellation of V-band 7,500 satellites that would operate at lower altitudes than the original constellation.

“In the future, these satellites would provide additional broadband capacity to the SpaceX system and further reduce latency where populations are heavily concentrated,” Cooper testified.