Tag Archives: Satellites

SpaceX’s Newest Starlink Satellites Have Space Lasers

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SpaceX made history recently when it launched a record 143 satellites on a single rocket. Among the plethora of spacecraft were ten new Starlink internet satellites. According to CEO Elon Musk, these are the first nodes in SpaceX’s network that have fully operational laser communication systems, allowing the satellites to talk to each other without ground stations for faster, more expansive coverage. 

Last weekend’s launch was also notable because it deployed its payload in a polar orbit, which uses more fuel than placing things in an equatorial orbit. Objects in a polar orbit will eventually pass over the entire surface of the planet because their movement is perpendicular to the Earth’s rotation. That’s why most mapping satellites are in polar orbits. Starlink satellites in polar orbits can also help boost coverage, but this also means they’ll pass over areas with no ground station coverage.

The solution, apparently, is lasers. It’s always fun when the solution is lasers. 

The batch of ten Starlink satellites includes a finished version of the laser intersatellite links the company tested on a few other nodes last year. As these satellites pass over the poles, there will be no visible ground stations to relay data. However, the lasers can transfer directly between satellites, keeping them connected to the rest of the constellation. 

The Falcon 9 launching SpaceX’s first rideshare mission.

Musk says that during last year’s test, the lasers beamed hundreds of gigabytes of data between nodes, and that could have benefits beyond the coverage boost. Moving data directly between satellites could speed up the network and help keep latency at a minimum — anything that decreases hops to the ground will make the network more dynamic. 

The good news is that SpaceX plans to add the same laser intersatellite links to all the satellites it launches next year. There are almost 1,000 in orbit right now, and SpaceX is authorized to deploy as many as 12,000, but it has asked the FCC to let it launch up to 30,000 more on top of that. 

Currently, Starlink internet service operates in parts of the northern US and Canada, offering speeds in excess of 100Mbps. For those in rural areas who were making do with ancient satellite internet or barely passable DSL, this is a big step up. The service will expand as SpaceX launches more satellites to eventually offer access globally. Well, unless you’re in Russia.

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SpaceX Launches Record-Setting 143 Satellites in First Rideshare Mission

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It’s undeniable that SpaceX has become the most innovative company in aerospace when you realize how often we have to say the following: SpaceX has set another record. This time, the company founded by Elon Musk has shattered the record for most satellites delivered to space in a single launch. On Sunday (Jan. 24), SpaceX launched the Transporter-1 mission with an incredible 143 satellites. Not everyone is celebrating, though. 

Transporter-1 is the culmination of a program SpaceX announced in 2019 to provide space access to smaller companies at lower costs. As a result, the Falcon 9 that lifted off from Cape Canaveral carried a mishmash of satellites into space. The largest single beneficiary was Planet, which launched 48 new SuperDove Earth-imaging satellites. Next up is SpaceX itself with 10 new Starlink nodes. The almost 100 remaining satellites came from a wide variety of customers. The previous record-holder was India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, which carried 104 satellites into space in 2017. 

SpaceX plans to continue offering this service, and why not? SpaceX has perfected the landing system for its Falcon 9 vehicle — after deploying the 143 satellites in the second stage, the Falcon 9 booster came back to Earth and landed on one of the company’s drone ships. It will be refurbished to fly again, vastly lowering the costs compared with expendable systems like the Atlas V. In fact, this Falcon 9 core stage (B1058) was previously used to launch NASA DM-2, the first crewed flight of the Dragon-Falcon 9 combo in May 2020. 

Currently, SpaceX offers companies scheduled payload launches in the rideshare program for as little as $ 1 million. That gets you up to 200 kilograms of launch mass, but the price goes up quickly beyond that. SpaceX also charges for extras such as port adapters, separation systems, insurance, and fuel. In the tweet above, you can see several different spacecraft attached to the second-stage ports. 

With SpaceX making it so easy for companies to get to space, many are worried about the impact it could have on the space environment. Already, SpaceX’s Starlink network has caused headaches for astronomers as the 1,000+ satellites interfere with observations. Placing more objects in orbit also increases the likelihood of a collision, which could produce orbiting shrapnel that goes on to damage or destroy other satellites. There’s no “traffic control” system to prevent this from happening, but that might become a necessity as SpaceX keeps lowering the financial barrier to entry.

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Starlink Satellites Ruin NEOWISE Comet Photo

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Earlier this year, NASA discovered a new comet with its Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) space telescope. The object, casually known as NEOWISE, has been closer to Earth this month than at any point in the last 6,000 years. Astronomers and photographers have been looking skyward to observe the comet, but one astrophotographer got a nasty surprise when Starlink satellites photobombed an otherwise excellent time-lapse photo. 

NEOWISE is what’s known as a long period comet — it has a highly eccentric orbit that takes it deep into the outer solar system over thousands of years before it swings back toward the sun (and Earth). Astronomers believe the nucleus of NEOWISE is roughly three miles (5 kilometers) in diameter. For most of July, the comet has been less than 200 million miles from Earth, which is close enough to see with the naked eye in isolated areas. In urban settings, you need binoculars or a telescope to spot the comet. 

Astrophotographer Daniel Lopez recently set up his equipment in Teide National Park on the Canary Islands to snap a time-lapse image of NEOWISE. The final image, which features 17 separate frames captured over 30 seconds is marred by streaks of light from SpaceX’s Starlink internet satellites. 

VisorSat is supposed to stop exactly this sort of thing from happening. If it works.

Elon Musk dreams of providing satellite internet access around the world with this mega-constellation of satellites. There are already more than 500 of them in orbit, but the company’s plans call for thousands. To avoid the horrendous lag endemic in previous satellite internet systems, Starlink satellites remain in lower orbits. That also makes them more visible. For example, Starlink satellites ruined observations of the Magellanic Clouds at the CTIO observatory in Chile. 

SpaceX has promised to address the high reflectivity of its satellite network with a system called VisorSat—essentially, fins that shield the shiny surface of the satellites from sunlight. SpaceX began testing VisorSat on satellites launched in April, but it’s unclear how well they work, and regardless, SpaceX is launching new satellites every few weeks. If VisorSat isn’t perfect, there could be a lot more ruined photos in the future. Musk claims that Starlink won’t have a substantial impact on astronomy even when there are thousands of satellites. Although, he does have a tendency to overpromise.

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Earth Imaging Satellites Will Hitch a Ride on Upcoming SpaceX Starlink Launches

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Satellite imaging startup Planet closed a deal to buy Google’s SkySat network in 2017, but it’s not stopping with the existing constellation. Planet aims to become the fastest satellite imaging firm thanks to a new deal with SpaceX. Planet will squeeze some of its satellites into some upcoming Starlink launches, giving customers access to fresher imagery. 

When Planet purchased the constellation from Google, there were 15 individual satellites orbiting at an altitude of 500 kilometers (about 310 miles). The company recently lowered the altitude to 450 kilometers. That might not sound like it would make a major difference, but it increased the effective resolution of the images from 80cm per pixel to 50cm per pixel. That’s the difference between seeing blobs traveling down the road and being able to differentiate between cars and trucks. 

Boosting image clarity is only part of the plan — Planet also wants faster updates. Many of its customers in forestry, agriculture, and technology want the most up-to-date images possible, and you can only get that by putting more satellites in orbit. Even small satellite launches used to be hideously expensive, but that’s changed with SpaceX’s frequent Starlink missions with reused rockets. 

Each one of Planet’s satellites is roughly the size of a washing machine and weighs 110kg (about 242 pounds), and it’s currently gearing up to add three of them to the next Falcon 9 Starlink payload. SpaceX has completed eight Starlink launches so far, most of which carry 60 individual satellites. It’ll be a tight fit, but there’s more space inside that fairing than you’d probably expect. SpaceX just shared a video (above) of the fairing deploying on its most recent Starlink mission. 

SpaceX will need a lot of rockets to get its proposed 12,000-node Starlink constellation. Realizing this, the company set up a “rideshare” program, allowing it to work directly with small satellite operators to use every bit of space on upcoming launches. At $ 500 per kilogram, the price is low enough that Planet decided to deploy more satellites — expanding its fleet wasn’t even on the table before the rideshare program. 

The first set of three will go up in a few days, and another three are scheduled for July. Activists painted “Black Lives Matter” on a street leading up to the White House last week, and Planet captured a widely seen image of it just hours later. With a total of 21 satellites, Planet will be even quicker to snap such images.

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SpaceX Launches 60 More Starlink Satellites

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SpaceX is fresh of its historic crewed launch that sent astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station (ISS), but it’s not taking any time off to celebrate. The company has just launched yet another batch of Starlink internet satellites, and it did so with one of the “most reused” rockets in history. 

SpaceX has been successfully recovering Falcon 9 boosters for several years, allowing it to lower the cost of launches. While the NASA launch over the weekend relied on a shiny new Falcon 9 (complete with NASA worm logo), the most recent Starlink mission used a sooty refurbished rocket. The core (B1049) has survived four previous launches; two Starlink launches, a mission to deploy the Telstar 18V communication satellite, and a load of Iridium NEXT satellites. The satellites reached orbit as planned, and the booster landed safely on the drone ship once again.

SpaceX is already the single largest satellite operator in the world, and the network will grow considerably over the next few years. It has approval to put 12,000 satellites in orbit, but it may eventually get permission to launch more. As with past Starlink launches, this mission deployed 60 new satellites to SpaceX’s mega-constellation. That brings us to 482 active satellites, which is more than the 400 satellites CEO Elon Musk predicted the company would need for basic internet services in select regions. Moderate coverage will require about 800 nodes. 

The Starlink constellation will mostly operate in low-Earth orbit, but some will remain in very-low Earth orbit (VLEO) to improve latency. Existing satellite internet connections can have a latency of several seconds, which makes real-time web applications impossible. SpaceX says Starlink, which will operate in the Ka and Ku bands, could offer latency as low as 15ms. That’s low even for terrestrial wired broadband. 

Astronomers have expressed concern over the effect all these satellites will have on observations of the sky. In early 2020, a team from the CTIO observatory in Chile lost 15-20 percent of the data from an image of the Magellanic Clouds. SpaceX’s solution is a system called VisorSat, which consists of small fins that deploy on the satellites to block sunlight from reflecting down to Earth. Today’s launch was the first to use VisorSat, but it will take time to find out how well it works.

Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the booster wasn’t recovered. We have updated the article and regret the error.

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SpaceX Will Test ‘VisorSat’ System to Make Starlink Satellites Invisible

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SpaceX is already the world’s largest single satellite operator with more than 400 of its Starlink internet nodes zipping around the Earth, but that’s only the start. The company hopes to have a fleet of thousands of satellites in just a few years, and that has astronomers worried. We’ve already seen these clouds of manmade material interfere with observations, and the problem will only get worse. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has promised to mitigate the astronomical interference caused by the Starlink Constellation, and now we’ve got more information about the company’s “VisorSat” solution. 

Satellite internet already exists, but bandwidth and latency are inferior to what you can get with any modern terrestrial solution. This has made satellite internet a last resort for those with no other connectivity options. Key to SpaceX’s approach is the massive size of its fleet, which will provide higher bandwidth to users on the ground. Some of the Starlink constellation will also orbit at very low altitudes to cut down on latency. All this means the probes are more likely to show up in astronomical observations, some of which have to remain focused on the same patch of sky for hours at a time. In one incident from early 2020, a team from the CTIO observatory in Chile lost 15-20 percent of the data from an image of the Magellanic Clouds. 

The solution, apparently, is a system SpaceX has dubbed VisorSat. Once in orbit, the satellites would deploy small fins to block sunlight from hitting the reflective antennas and bouncing down to Earth. Musk says this should make the probes invisible to the naked eye and minimize the impact on astronomy. The company will also change the way the satellites orient themselves while moving into higher orbits after launch, which is when they are most visible. 

SpaceX launches 60 Starlink satellites with a single Falcon 9 rocket.

Previously, SpaceX experimented with treating materials to make them less reflective, and that showed promise in early testing. However, Musk says he believes VisorSat will be more effective. SpaceX intends to test VisorSat on the next Starlink launch, which could happen in the next few weeks. SpaceX has been launching batches of 60 satellites about once per month this year. 

If VisorSat works as intended, all future Starlink satellites will include the technology. SpaceX designed the satellites to be cheap with an expected lifespan of three or four years. That means the company can replace the current 400-strong fleet with less reflective satellites little by little as they fail and deorbit.

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SpaceX Launches More Internet Satellites, Musk Teases Beta Program This Year

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SpaceX launched yet another batch of Starlink internet satellites atop a Falcon 9 this week, moving the company tantalizingly close to firing up the network for a limited beta test. CEO Elon Musk has provided a few details about what such a test would look like, but SpaceX still only has a fraction of its planned Starlink constellation in orbit. The early tests will be limited, but it’s only a matter of time before the sky is crawling with Starlink nodes. 

The first Starlink launch happened less than a year ago, successfully delivering 60 prototype v0.9 satellites into orbit. Some of that first batch stopped working, but most remain alive. Over the course of five subsequent launches, SpaceX deployed the final Starlink v1.0 satellites. Accounting for the failures, SpaceX now has about 415 satellites in orbit, making it the largest single satellite operator in the world. 

Starlink will eventually include about 40,000 individual satellites, but Elon Musk previously said it would take between 400 and 800 satellites to bring the network online in a limited geographic area. Musk has talked a lot about how Starlink could bring connectivity to places with limited access, but it could be of use even in places where you can get other types of service. The approach of using large numbers of satellites, some of which are in very low orbits, could alleviate the lag issues that have made traditional satellite internet so unreliable. 

Replying to a Twitter post, Musk said that the first private beta test could start in about three months. That could progress to a public beta test in six months. Because of the relatively small number of satellites, the tests will focus on higher latitudes. We know Starlink already works at least to some degree — Musk posted a tweet from the Starlink network several months ago. We don’t know, however, if it will be fast enough for things like Netflix streaming and video conferencing, both of which have become essential in the post-coronavirus world. 

SpaceX has already asked for FCC authorization to deploy as many as one million satellite uplinks on the ground. That will be required for anyone who wants to use the Starlink network. SpaceX hasn’t provided any details on installation or availability for those devices, but Musk will probably talk about the plan on Twitter at some point. He always does. 

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SpaceX Launches New Batch of Starlink Satellites, Loses Falcon 9 During Landing Attempt

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Things on Earth are getting a bit treacherous with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but SpaceX is still working on its plans for outer space. The company just completed its latest Starlink satellite deployment, bringing it tantalizingly close to flipping the switch for consumer connectivity. However, CEO Elon Musk confirms the Falcon 9 rocket failed to land on the company’s drone ship thanks to a malfunctioning engine. 

The fog cleared just in time for the Falcon 9 to launch this morning from Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, taking 60 Starlink internet satellites with it. The lift-off went perfectly, but we now know that one of the rocket’s nine engines shut down during the ascent. Luckily, the eight remaining engines compensated for the loss of thrust and got the second stage where it needed to be for release. 

The second stage carried the satellites into orbit, adding to SpaceX’s already massive swarm of internet nodes. This brings the Starlink constellation to more than 350, putting SpaceX even further in the lead as the world’s largest satellite operator. The current launch schedule includes three more Starlink launches this year, adding 180 more satellites. However, just one more launch could get SpaceX where it needs to begin offering limited consumer service. Musk previously indicated it would take between 400 and 800 satellites.

More people than ever need reliable internet connections at home to continue working and learning as authorities continue to recommend social distancing to combat coronavirus. This would be a good time for SpaceX to bring its Starlink network online, but there’s no guarantee SpaceX will do so even after it reaches the minimum threshold of 400 nodes. Without a fully developed network, Starlink could suffer from the latency issues that have made traditional satellite internet systems undesirable. 

Back to that first-stage booster — most SpaceX launches conclude with the Falcon 9 rocket deftly landing on a drone ship for later reuse. However, the failed engine apparently meant the rocket was unable to reach the ship and crashed in the ocean. The booster, known as B1048, had a storied career as the first Falcon 9 to complete five launches. It had two in 2018, two in 2019, and now one in 2020. It might not have survived, but that’s still four more launches than any other rockets are getting. 

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SpaceX Launches Fourth Batch of Starlink Internet Satellites

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After a series of weather-related delays, SpaceX has successfully launched another batch of Starlink internet satellites. This payload of 60 satellites brings SpaceX’s total count to 240, putting it even farther in the lead as the world’s largest satellite operator. Naturally, SpaceX also recovered the first stage booster for later use, possibly on another Starlink launch — the company hopes to have thousands of small satellites in orbit by later this year. 

SpaceX initially had the launch set for Monday, but winds forced a cancellation. The Tuesday launch was then called on account of poor weather in the landing zone. Finally, the Thursday launch window worked out, and the Falcon 9 lifted off at about 9 AM from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Several minutes after lift-off, the first-stage booster detached and rendezvoused with the drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” in the Atlantic Ocean. This is SpaceX’s 49th booster recovery, and the third for this particular rocket. 

So far, regulators have approved SpaceX to launch 12,000 satellites, which dwarfs the current number of active satellites around Earth at a bit over 2,000. Over 7,000 of those satellites will be in very-low Earth orbit (VLEO) with the rest in geosynchronous low-Earth orbit. The VLEO units will allegedly help SpaceX offer internet access with latency similar to terrestrial connections. Current satellite internet systems often have lag that many times worse than the average cable connection. 

Astronomers around the world are beginning to learn that the first few days after a Starlink launch are a tough time to observe the cosmos. The swarms of satellites are more likely to appear as bright streaks in images as they make their way into higher orbits. SpaceX says it will work with the scientific community to lessen the impact of its satellite constellation, but there is concern that 12,000 or more Starlink nodes will cause irrevocable changes in the sky. 

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said that it will take at least 400 satellites to provide limited connectivity on the ground and twice that many for moderate coverage. At this rate, Starlink service could start rolling out in the coming months. The company is currently aiming for two Starlink launches in February, and that would put SpaceX within striking distance of the minimum coverage threshold.

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SpaceX Deploys 60 More Starlink Satellites in Record-Breaking Launch

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It has been a quiet fall for SpaceX, which launched a Falcon 9 rocket early August before taking a break to prepare for future missions. Now, SpaceX has successfully deployed a new batch of Starlink internet satellites, and the Falcon 9 that delivered them made history in the process. At this rate, SpaceX could begin offering internet access by the middle of 2020. Although, not everyone is happy about the growth of the Starlink constellation — astronomers worry Starlink could interfere with ground-based observations and other satellites. 

SpaceX sent the first batch of Starlink satellites into space earlier this year as a test. Some of the devices failed to operate, but SpaceX has since refined the software. CEO Elon Musk was able to send a tweet via the Starlink network recently, but the system needs at least a few hundred satellites for what SpaceX calls “moderate” coverage. The latest launch of 60 satellites gets SpaceX on the way there. 

Unlike other satellite internet systems, Starlink aims to provide very low latency connections. Many of the satellites will remain in very-low Earth orbit (VLEO) to improve connectivity. SpaceX has promised latency as low as 15ms, which would be very impressive if true. 

Initially, SpaceX only planned to launch a few thousand satellites to power Starlink, but that number has since ballooned to at least 30,000. The company hopes to have 2,000 in orbit by the end of the year. Astronomers worry that the high reflectivity of thousands of satellites will throw off observations of distant objects. Musk says the team is looking at ways to reduce the albedo (or reflectivity) of the satellites in future launches. With thousands of satellites in the constellation, there is also concern they could collide with other satellites

The Falcon 9 that delivered the second batch of Starlink satellites to space also set a record for reusability. This was the booster’s fourth launch, having landed after three previous missions. While SpaceX managed to land the rocket a fourth time, it’s unclear if it will get another mission. This was also the first mission to use refurbished fairings — those are the aerodynamic shells that cover the payload on the second stage. SpaceX just started collecting those for reuse recently. 

SpaceX isn’t the only company planning a large satellite constellation, but its unparalleled rocket reusability should help it realize the strategy on the cheap.

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