SpaceX Files to Build Massive Satellite Network

by Bill Ostrove, Space Systems Analyst, Forecast International.

Falcon 9 Launch
Falcon 9 Launch

SpaceX has officially filed with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to build and operate a massive network of low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. According to documents submitted to the FCC, the satellite constellation will consist of 4,425 operational satellites along with in-orbit spares. The satellites will operate in 83 orbital planes, at altitudes ranging from 1,110 to 1,325 kilometers. They will operate in Ku- and Ka-bands.

The system is designed to provide a wide range of broadband and communications services for residential, commercial, institutional, governmental, and professional users worldwide. Although no launch dates have been announced, initial plans call for 800 satellites to be deployed to provide coverage over North America.

The network will gradually be expanded after that, with the goal of providing complete global coverage, even over extreme northern and southern latitudes. With satellites in 83 orbital planes, SpaceX expects that goal to be attainable.

SpaceX first announced a plan to develop a constellation of 4,000+ satellites in 2015, when it indicated it would open a plant in Seattle to build the spacecraft. SpaceX also announced that year that it had raised $1 billion in capital from investors – including giants Fidelity and Alphabet’s Google –  to help pay for the system. SpaceX indicated it expected to spend between $10 billion and $15 billion on the network.

SpaceX’s plans have caused some tension within the satellite industry. In July 2015, Intelsat complained that the SpaceX satellites would interfere with its own spacecraft, which orbit at much higher altitudes than SpaceX’s planned constellation.

SpaceX is not alone among satellite operators in planning to deploy a massive network of LEO satellites. However, SpaceX’s plans are considerably more ambitious than those of  OneWeb, for example, whose plans call for a constellation numbering “only” in the 100s.

SpaceX is currently working on a number of high-priority projects –  the Falcon 9’s return to flight,  ongoing work to make the Falcon 9 reusable, deployment of the Falcon Heavy, and continuing development of Mars colonization plans. The new satellite constellation project is yet another ambitious goal. With the company’s finances and workforce deployed across so many projects, it is unlikely that the constellation will be fully operational within five to 10 years.

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