Worldwide Internet may soon become a reality!

The Great Digital Divide and Elon Musk!

There are millions on the earth with limited access to quality internet. Low-Earth orbit satellite-based internet technologies, like Elon Musk’s Starlink, can be the game changer that can connect everyone, especially after the recent pandemic raised needs to get everyone connected!

If you’re an ardent fan of space, you would probably know how many launches SpaceX has done, and how many Starlink satellites already are in orbit. For others, don’t bother! So, why is Elon Musk putting so many rockets into space?

On October 24, SpaceX, the aerospace brainchild of Elon Musk that aims to reduce space transportation costs, launched yet another set of Starlink satellites.

SpaceX’s Falcon rocket in launch motion | Image: quartz.com

Since the first launch in February 2018, 14 additional launches have put 895 launches into orbit, with two more with a payload of 60 each scheduled for November 2020. Of 895, 51 have removed from orbit due to various problems. SpaceX has said 1,584 satellites, in the first phase, will be needed for the Starlink system to become a full-fledged internet provider.

With the number of satellites in orbit, the company aims to provide broadband connectivity services to villages ravaged by forest fires, to remote Native American tribes and is even considered as an alternative to the GPS network for geolocation. Starlink has signed a deal with Microsoft to provide connectivity anywhere on the planet.

As of October 2019, Musk and SpaceX had received formal approval from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch 12,000 satellites into orbit and submitted paperwork for another 30,000 in December 2019.

The current reusable rockets of SpaceX can only deploy a payload of 60. In parallel, SpaceX is finalizing the development of Starship, a more massive rocket that would allow them to put 400 satellites into orbit at once.

How is SpaceX doing launch after launch?

SpaceX was initially established with the dream to colonize Mars but was unable to procure rockets that would be cheap or reliable enough to make the journey.

Over the course of a decade, SpaceX has arduously been researching and developing technologies (a line of revolutionary rockets) for reusable launch systems, an orbital launch system (space launch vehicles) that may be reused many times like the reusability of aircraft.

They are following their predecessors’ master plan: transfer learning and exploiting economies of scale. From landing two boosters in 2014 to landing 15 in 2017, SpaceX has gradually perfected techniques of landing boosters after missions.

Each subsequent launch is cheaper than the previous one, meaning SpaceX makes more progress in component-reuse technologies, allowing it to share costs with other projects. Using reusable rockets to exploit the benefits of economies of scale, SpaceX cut costs to orbit by a factor of 18, once thought to be inaccessible to newcomers in the industry.

What was once a theory on paper, SpaceX has beaten the all-powerful Boeing in the mission to put two people in orbit, and now, looking to take the lead in the race for space/air-based internet services. Now, even SpaceX’s idea to colonize Mars seems impossibly optimistic.

What are the economics behind a SpaceX rocket?

In August, Elon Musk tweeted:

“Payload reduction due to reusability of booster & fairing is <40% for F9 & recovery & refurb is <10%, so you’re roughly even with 2 flights, definitely ahead with 3.”

It means costs of the payload that flies on a single rocket is reduced by ~40%, and the cost of recovery and refurbishment of the boosters makes up less than 10% of initial production costs.

SpaceX director of vehicle integration Christopher Couluris said during a briefing this year that reusing rockets can bring prices lower, adding that it “costs $28 million to launch it, that’s with everything.” While the price tag can vary, it’s ~30% of the total cost of the United States Air Force’s launches (~$95 million).

In May, Elon Musk mentioned to Aviation Week that the marginal cost of a Falcon 9 booster is $15 million in the best case. He also mentioned that the cost of refurbishing a booster is ~$1 million, which makes his most recent claim that the costs of refurbishment are indeed correct.

You went on and on about Starlink, what is it?

If you’ve ever connected to a Wi-Fi device onboard an aircraft, you’ve used satellite-based internet. Starlink uses the same technology. The motive of such services is to provide reliable internet services to the millions who don’t.

These aren’t just people living in sub-Saharan Africa or rural hinterlands of North America; it could be people living in dense cities with limited access to the internet. With Covid-19 wrecking havoc across the world, forest fires scathing Australia and California — there is a newfound urgency to the challenge of getting everyone connected.

Elon Musk’s constellation of Starlink satellites, from the Low-earth orbits, can beam internet down to anyone on the planet. Combine that with improvements in other technologies like DSL, cable, and fiber, services like Starlink stand to bridge the digital divide!

Is SpaceX the only one putting satellites into orbit for space/satellite internet services?

You may have heard of Viasat, Hughes, DirecTV, etc. — concepts of proven satellite-based technology that are decades old (the satellites are 22,000 miles above the Earth’s surface). However, the innovative low-Earth orbit satellite technology (between 300–1,200 miles above Earth’s surface) developed by SpaceX could be essential in places that aren’t connected.

SpaceX is the only one with ‘satellites’ in the low-Earth orbit. Amazon, only in July, received approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch 3,236 low-Earth orbit satellites for a constellation of its own called Project Kuiper. Some competitors want to beam Wi-Fi from the sky, but don’t use satellites. Google’s Loon uses a network of stratospheric balloons and Facebook’s Aquila, abandoned in 2018, used solar-powered drones.

Elon Musk’s efforts to provide internet to everyone will have failures, possibly backlash like Google and Facebook had, but there is no doubt that his goal’s to provide high-speed broadband to everyone on Earth is a lofty, but not an impossible, one. Such things, though technically possible, are expensive and take years to come to fruition.

But if anything would motivate Elon Musk to push for such a tremendous disruption in the internet service business, the pandemic, the recent forest fires, and possibly billions in revenues to fund his Mars dream should keep him going!

Takeaways:

- SpaceX is able to launch payload after payload thanks to the reusable space launch vehicles that they have built and mastered over time, transferring their learning from one launch to benefit the subsequent one.

- Elon Musk’s constellation of Starlink satellites, from the Low-earth orbits, can beam internet down to anyone on the planet. Combine that with improvements in other tech like DSL, cable, and fiber, services like Starlink stand to bridge the digital divide.

- The low-Earth technology would solve latency issues that the decade old satellite technologies have.

- Starlink has signed a deal with Microsoft to provide connectivity anywhere on the planet.

- Google’s Loon and Amazon’s Project Kuiper are similar technologies. Facebook’s Aquila was shelved in 2018.

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