SpaceX Gets U.S. Permission To Orbit 20,000 Starlink Satellites

20,000 satellites
One of the 20,000 Starlink satellites (Photo: SpaceX)

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has finally given SpaceX permission to deploy all 12,000 satellites of its massive Starlink communications constellation into Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

Starlink is now officially the largest satellite constellation in history under one operator. SpaceX expects to orbit its first Starlink satellites in 2019 and begin providing limited service by 2020.

The FCC approved SpaceX's application to add 7,518 more Starlink satellites to the 4,409 satellites it approved in March 2017. The Starlink internet communication satellites will consist of cross-linked "small satellites" (or smallsats)

The license granted SpaceX is the first time the FCC has approved a U.S.-licensed LEO broadband satellite service. SpaceX expects more than $30 billion in revenue from 40 million subscribers for this service by 2025.

FCC granted SpaceX the authority to use frequencies in the Ka (20/30 GHz) and Ku (11/14 GHz) bands. SpaceX founder Elon Musk said SpaceX planned to launch a satellite-internet business to help fund his ambitious goal of building a city on Mars.

In 2017, SpaceX submitted regulatory filings to orbit some 12,000 satellites by the mid-2020s. Development of the Starlink satellites began in 2015. Prototype test-flight satellites were successfully launched last February 22. The first Starlink satellites should become operational by either 2019 or 2020.

Starlink satellites will belong to the smallsat-class. They will have a mass ranging from 100 kg to 500 kg. The satellites will be placed in LEO orbits from 340 to 1,100 km above the surface of the Earth. The satellites will employ optical inter-satellite links; phased array beamforming and digital processing technologies in the Ku- and Ka-band. They will utilize frequencies above 10,000 GHz. The satellites will also use V-band radio rather than the more common Ka/Ku band often employed by this service.

SpaceX said some of these satellites will orbit at the extremely low altitude of 340 kilometers.

Satellites this low in LEOs will see their orbits decay quickly before they're captured by Earth's gravity to burn-up in the atmosphere. As a result, these low-flying satellites will have service lives lasting a couple of years before they burn-up.  But being in low LEO also means latency and the onboard power needed for signals is significantly lower, resulting in stronger signals.

The Starlink satellites will operate in the high-frequency bands above 24 GHz. SpaceX will mass-produce the satellites to benefit from economies of scale.

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