Elon Musk’s Next Big Thing Is 40,000 Satellites Beaming Broadband

He hopes low-Earth orbits will help him succeed where so many others have failed.

Bloomberg Businessweek

September 17, 2020

By Thomas Pfeiffer and Thomas Seal

Sixty Starlink satellites as seen in the night sky from Vladivostok, Russia, on April 27. The satellites were launched into orbit five days earlier, on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. PHOTOGRAPHER: YURI SMITYUK/TASS/GETTY IMAGES/TASS

Every few years, someone comes along promising to disrupt the satellite industry. They burn through billions in cash before ambition crashes back down to Earth. Since the late 1990s, Globalstar, Iridium, Leosat, Skybridge, Teledesic, and other companies have attempted to rewrite space communications, only to collapse or shrink into a niche that poses little threat to the incumbents.

Now comes Elon Musk. After overturning the economics of the car and the rocket-launch industries, the billionaire is taking a hatchet to another fraying business model—space communications—by filling the skies with thousands of satellites that beam internet to isolated populations. His Space Exploration Technologies Corp. sent up the first Starlink satellites in May 2019, and as of early this month it had deployed almost 700, single-handedly increasing the number of active satellites in orbit by almost a third.

Broadband from space already exists, but it relies on geostationary satellites that orbit more than 22,200 miles from Earth, making the connections too slow to compete effectively with new applications on terrestrial networks. By contrast, Musk’s are at an altitude of 340 miles, putting his system at a potential speed advantage over the fastest undersea fiber networks.

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But a long list of past failures underscores the challenge. Low-Earth orbit, or LEO, satellites need to zip around the world at about 5 miles per second to maintain a constant altitude. To ensure a reliable internet service, a ground receiver must hop constantly from one satellite signal to another without dropping the two-way connection. It’s like playing soccer with 12 balls on the pitch. And no one has found a way to make such a sophisticated piece of new technology and turn a profit in the mass consumer market.

“There still is real uncertainty with regard to the future of these systems,” says Carissa Christensen, chief executive officer of analytics company Bryce Space & Technology. SpaceX has “an extraordinary track record of delivering technology breakthroughs,” she says, but less expertise in consumer retail markets and telecommunications. SpaceX didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.

Read the complete article at: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-09-17/elon-musk-s-starlink-wants-to-beam-broadband-internet-from-40-000-satellites#:~:text=Elon%20Musk’s%20Next%20Big%20Thing,so%20many%20others%20have%20failed.&text=Sixty%20Starlink%20satellites%20as%20seen,%2C%20Russia%2C%20on%20April%2027.

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