Friday, October 23, 2020

SpaceX Starlink is on a roll

This is an impressive list of achievements, but bear in mind that we are still in the early days of a yet-unproven technology and market in a complex geopolitical environment.

Why Elon is smiling
The last two months have seen a flurry of Starlink activity, including the following:

Bill Gates has a history of interest in satellite Internet and in September, Microsoft announced their Azure Obrital ground station service, which enables satellite access to its Azure cloud services. SES, Viasat, and Intelsat were announced as initial partners and SpaceX just signed up. Starlink+Azure Orbital will compete with Amazon's satellite constellation and its ground-station service. (For more on Azure Orbital, check out this podcast interview and transcript of product manager Nora Zhan).

SpaceX did some good and got good publicity by providing seven user terminals to the Washington State Emergency Management Division for deployment in at least one region hit hard by summer wildfires. Richard Hall, the emergency telecommunications leader of the Washington State Military Department’s IT division said he had “never set up any tactical satellite equipment that has been as quick to set up, and anywhere near as reliable” as Starlink.

This month, SpaceX provided connectivity to the Hoh Indian tribe west of Seattle. I don't know how many terminals were provided or the speed and latency of the service, but the response and publicity have been positive.

SpaceX has been running beta tests in the US at latitudes between 44 and 52 degrees north. SpaceX reported that it has observed a median latency of approximately 30 ms and a 95th percentile latency of 42 ms in over a million observations.

The FCC will award up to $16 billion over ten years to support fixed broadband service in unserved rural areas. They were initially skeptical of satellite service providers, saying they had not proved that they could meet the requirement for the low-latency, under100 ms bidding tier, but this month, after considering beta test results, the FCC invited SpaceX to bid in the rural broadband funding auction.

After receiving over 700,000 expressions of interest from all 50 states, SpaceX requested an increase in the number of authorized user terminals from one million to five million. They also announced that they are able to manufacture 120 satellites per month, keeping up with their target launch rate.

The capital cities of 17 relatively affluent European nations fall between 44 and 52 degrees north and SpaceX has applied for 3 internet gateway ground stations in France and is said to be looking for roof space on European datacenter roofs.

While the current beta test is in the US, a number of European capitals are between 44 and 52 degrees north and SpaceX is able to serve them as well as the northern US.

SpaceX has begun the process of being able to offer service in Canada, but the final approval will not be considered for around 130 days.

SpaceX has registered 14 shell companies in 13 foreign nations (click here and enter entity number 10143028). I checked the street address of one and it seems to be a postal box rather than an office, but I have been assured that establishing shell companies is common practice. Eight of them are named "TIBRO" (orbit spelled backward) so I assume they are at an earlier stage of development than the others.

SpaceX successfully tested a laser link between two satellites, but, as far as I know, did not reveal details like transmission rate or time to establish a connection. I assume that the links were between two satellites in the same plane. (They initially planned five lasers per satellite and are now committed to having four -- forward and backward in the same plane and two others linking to adjacent planes).

In an interview at the Mars Society Convention, Elon Musk spelled out a timetable for an unmanned Mars landing that included high volume Starship flights, each capable of launching up to 400 Starlink satellites, in 2022.

Perhaps as a result of the above, Morgan Stanley just raised its valuation of SpaceX from $52 billion in July to over $100 billion, and speculated that it might be as high as $200 billion.

The above is an impressive list of achievements, but bear in mind that we are still in the early days of a yet-unproven technology and market in a complex geopolitical environment. Furthermore, we lack the sort of regulation and harmonization that has evolved over the years to govern the seas, and global problems like space debris and collision avoidance remain unsolved.

Update 10/28/2020

According to an email, Starlink has moved into the second phase of it's beta program, nicknamed the “better than nothing beta,” which feeks snarky to me. It may be better than nothing, but it is not as good as the initial beta which was free. Participants will pay $99 per month for the service and pay $499 for a terminal, including a tripod and WiFi router.

SpaceX warn that data speeds will vary from 50 to 150Mb/s and latency from 20ms to 40ms and may be intermittent at times, but performance will improve as more satellites are launched. I'm not sure of the service area, but I had applied to be informed when service would be available at a mountain home at around 34.4 degrees north and I was not invited.

They have also created apps to guide uses throught the process of plugging the terminal in and pointing it to the sky.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Elon Musk interview -- management philosophy, rocket design, and a tentative timeline for an un-crewed Mars mission

Musk predicts high-volume, re-usable Starhip flights in 2022 -- each capable of launching 400 up to Starlink satellties.

Elon Musk was interviewed during the virtual convention of the Mars Society. The interview covered SpaceX technology and management and space travel. I'll summarize some of the former here and recommend taking the time to watch the full 55-minute interview.
Here are some of the key points Musk made:
Clear, ambitious objectives drive rapid innovation and his goal it to create a self-sustaining settlement on Mars as soon as possible.

Achieving that goal requires getting a lot of tonnage to Mars, so expendable rockets are a joke, a waste of time. Fairings too.

Scale matters -- large rockets are efficient. Avionics for a large rocket are no larger than for a small rocket and you gain gauge advantages with size -- you can afford thicker, more accurate castings and skins on a large rocket. (The same goes for trucks and ships).

Their current Falcon 9 is close to a local maximum for a kerosene-burning rocket which is limited to a 12-foot diameter because of road transport constraints and its length is constrained by the skin thickness required to avoid bending.

Methane is a better fuel than kerosene -- a rocket goes further if it shoots gas out the end faster and a bigger percentage of its mass is propellant. Furthermore, oxygen is cheap and you can go to a higher oxygen/propellant ratio with methane and you can make both oxygen and methane on Mars.

He gave some timetable guesses with the caveat that they assume exponential innovation:

  • 80-90% confident of reaching orbit with Starship next year.
  • 50-60% confident of ship and booster reuse next year.
  • High volume flights in 2022 -- each capable of launching up to 400 Starlink satellites.
  • Refuel in orbit in 2022.
  • Two or three years for a moon ship -- after refueling in orbit.
  • An un-crewed Mars mission in maybe four years (at the time of the second Mars transfer window from now).
(Note that they might not choose to launch 400 satellites at a time since a loss of 400 satellites or 28 booster rocket engines would be very costly and mixed-purpose launches are also possible).

The above assume a non-linear rate of innovation. When asked what makes SpaceX so innovative, Musk first said "I don't really know," but went on to credit having ambitious sub-goals like:

  • Full and rapid reuse.
  • Orbital refueling.
  • Propellent production on Mars.
He said SpaceX will not have competitors unless someone else is shooting for Mars.

His goal also requires a million people who want to go to Mars and can afford or find funding to do so -- you need the will and the way. He is working on the way.

When asked about SpaceX hiring criteria he said he looks for "evidence of exceptional ability" regardless of certification and worries that if Nikola Tesla applied to work at Tesla they might not even give him an interview.

I really enjoyed the interview. I like Musk's humor and relaxed, off-the-cuff speaking style and admire the breadth of his knowledge, his focus on the very big picture, and his management style. He gets results.

If you like this interview, here are a few of my favorites Musk talks.

Friday, October 02, 2020

A new Chinese broadband satellite constellation

Can we afford the wasted capacity and idle investment of SpaceX satellites remaining dormant while flying above China and GW satellites remaining dormant while flying above the US?


In an earlier post, I described three Chinese low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations that seemed to be oriented toward broadband communication. 

  • Hongyun, which plans 864 satellites and will emphasize service in China's remote regions. 
  • Hongyan, which plans around 320 satellites, seems to be looking at applications like maritime, aviation, and mobile backhaul service. 
  • Galaxy Space seems to be focused on 5G backhaul and Internet of things applications. 

None of those companies seem to be pursuing the global consumer market that SpaceX and OneWeb hope to serve, but a new Chinese company code-named GW seems to plan on doing so. 

GW has filed a spectrum application with the International Telecommunication Union for two constellations with the cryptic names GW-A59 and GW-2. They requested permission to use the following frequencies:

  • 37.5-39.5 GHz (space-to-Earth)
  • 39.5-42.5 GHz (space-to-Earth) 
  • 47.2-50.2 GHz (Earth-to-space) 
  • 50.4-51.4 GHz (Earth-to-space) 
for communication with 12,992 satellites:


The size of the constellations implies an intention to compete in the end-user broadband service market. Where might they fit in that market segment?

In a recent podcast, consultant Blaine Curcio pointed out that a long history of government infrastructure investment has left China with a strong terrestrial network. Hongyan might be able to serve much of the remaining domestic market, but with 12,992 satellites in orbits ranging from 30 to 85 degrees inclination, GW seems to be interested in the global market where they would compete with SpaceX and OneWeb. (Telesat will also compete in these markets but is focusing on mobile backhaul and hotspots for education, telemedicine, and community access).

SpaceX, which is off to the fastest end-user start, is focusing initially on the lucrative markets of North America, followed perhaps by Europe. OneWeb would seem to have an advantage in the Asian and African nations where part-owner Bharti has a presence as well as the United Kingdom due to the government's stake in the company. GW would be in a strong position in the nations where China already has "Digital Silk Road" (DSR) projects, as shown below.

DSR IT infrastructure projects as of 12/2018 (source)

The DSR is part of China's ambitions Belt and Road initiative with infrastructure projects in around 70 nations. In late 2016 they added space infrastructure -- the Belt & Road spatial Information Corridor. While they are currently concentrated in Eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa, I've speculated that the DSR may extend to Latin America.

Over half the people in the world live in or near China and India. Many of those have no connectivity and some are paying very high rates for geosynchronous satellite service. If the LEO satellite business works out, there is room for GW, OneWeb, SpaceX, Telesat, and others. 

I have painted a speculative picture of a politically bifurcated LEO Internet with GW serving one set of nations and SpaceX and OneWeb others, but I am certainly not endorsing that future. Satellite constellations are by definition global and we are facing massive global challenges today -- can we afford the wasted capacity and idle investment of SpaceX satellites remaining dormant while flying above China and GW satellites remaining dormant while flying above the US?