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SpaceX Falcon 9 liftoff
SpaceX plans to launch its own satellites on Falcon 9 rockets, like the one shown here lifting off from NASA’s Launch Complex 39A in Florida. (SpaceX Photo)

SpaceX has laid out its latest schedule for the satellite broadband service it’s developing in the Seattle area, starting with the launch of a prototype satellite by the end of this year.

The ambitious plan foresees beginning the launch of operational satellites into low Earth orbit aboard Falcon 9 rockets in 2019, with the constellation reaching its full complement of 4,425 satellites by 2024.

That constellation would provide high-speed internet access to billions of people around the globe, beaming data via the Ku and Ka transmission bands to SpaceX’s laptop-sized user terminals. Another 7,500 satellites operating in the V-band could be added later to boost the network’s capabilities.

This week’s update came in testimony provided to the Senate Commerce Committee by Patricia Cooper, SpaceX’s vice president for satellite government affairs.

“SpaceX plans to bring high-speed, reliable and affordable broadband service to consumers in the U.S. and around the world, including areas underserved or currently unserved by existing networks,” Cooper said in her written testimony.

SpaceX Redmond office
SpaceX’s Redmond office is the center for its satellite operations. (GeekWire photo by Kevin Lisota)

Her statement signals that SpaceX’s satellite development center in Redmond, Wash., is likely to be ramping up in the months ahead – which meshes with the company’s expansion of its Redmond facilities.

Although SpaceX hasn’t provided employment figures for the Redmond operation, the company’s billionaire founder, Elon Musk, has said the figure could eventually rise to 1,000. SpaceX’s website currently lists more than 60 open positions in Redmond.

Cooper said this year’s first launch of a prototype satellite would be followed early next year with a second prototype launch, followed by a demonstration period before the start of the operational launch campaign in 2019.

Each 850-pound satellite would measure about 13 by 6 by 4 feet, with 19-foot-long solar arrays, according to SpaceX’s filing with the Federal Communications Commission. Operating lifetime is estimated at five to seven years per satellite.

The relatively low orbits designated for the satellite constellation – ranging from 690 to 823 miles in altitude – would provide relatively low latency for the flow of data, which has been a significant drawback for satellite broadband.

In her testimony, Cooper urged the senators to support the FCC’s efforts to modernize its regulations for satellite systems.

For example, she noted that current FCC rules require a licensee to launch all the satellites in its constellation within six years of receiving a license. “These systems should be allowed to grow more like cellular networks, where additional assets and updated technology are deployed over time to meet increased demand,” Cooper said.

Cooper also said next-generation satellite systems should be included in any legislation aimed at beefing up the nation’s infrastructure. The Trump administration has called for a $1 trillion public-private infrastructure initiative.

SpaceX isn’t the only venture planning to put satellites in low Earth orbit to provide widescale high-speed internet access. OneWeb, a consortium with backing from Airbus, Virgin Galactic and other partners, aims to start launching satellites within the next two years.

Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, said in March that it would send up OneWeb’s satellites on its yet-to-be-built New Glenn rocket starting in 2021.

The Boeing Co. has also drawn up plans for a satellite internet system, and last month Bloomberg reported that Boeing has discussed the project with Apple. TMF Associates’ Tim Farrar went further, quoting insiders as saying that Apple was funding Boeing’s V-band satellite development effort.

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