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Satellite arrangement
The satellite coverage scheme described in a patent application envisions two sets of satellites orbiting in different inclinations at different altitudes. (PatentYogi via YouTube)

When it comes to providing global broadband internet coverage, two satellite constellations in low Earth orbit are better than one. At least that’s the implication of a patent application filed by an inventor who used to work at Google and is now part of SpaceX’s Seattle-area satellite operation.

Mark Krebs’ concept is described in an application that was filed last September, published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in January, and picked up this week by PatentYogi’s Deepak Gupta. It calls for setting up two sets of satellites orbiting at different altitudes with different inclinations.

The scheme brings a couple of advantages: It eases the way for putting up thousands of satellites in orbits that cross over each other without having to worry about the threat of collision. The orbital arrangement also makes it easier to provide overlapping coverage for customers down below. That allows for a smooth handoff from one satellite to another, and provides more of a backup in case a single satellite goes offline.

The higher-orbiting constellation provides wider coverage, while the lower-orbiting constellation provides higher bandwidth.

“The satellites are arranged to provide at least 75 percent coverage of the Earth at any given time,” Gupta says in a YouTube video describing the scheme.

Krebs’ move from Google to SpaceX suggests that this is more than a blue-sky concept: Back in 2015, at around the same time that SpaceX’s Elon Musk announced the establishment of the satellite operation in Redmond, Wash., Google and Fidelity invested $1 billion to back the company’s effort to create a 4,425-satellite constellation for internet service. That meshes with the scale of the system described in Krebs’ application.

SpaceX is expanding its presence in Redmond, stoking suspicions that the satellite operation will soon raise its profile. Musk has said he sees the potential revenue from the satellite system as a significant contributor to his long-term vision of establishing cities on Mars.

Musk isn’t the only one who’s planning a huge satellite broadband network: OneWeb is also gearing up to put hundreds and eventually thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit. OneWeb has been in the news lately, due to its plans for a merger with Intelsat and its deal with Blue Origin for five launches in the 2020s. Both SpaceX and OneWeb are aiming to get the first stage of their services up and running by 2020 – which suggests the skies are going to get pretty crowded in the years ahead.

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