Elon Musk and his space company recently received a lot of attention for putting a space suit-wearing dummy, dubbed Starman, into a Tesla car and shooting the two into space. While that is exciting, their plans for an internet-beaming satellite network are far more intriguing.

Musk isn't a stranger to far-out ideas: He helped make electric cars sexy; he's open-sourced a wild "hyperloop" transit system that could revolutionise the way we get from A to B; his space company, SpaceX, is developing reusable rockets and planning to colonise Mars; and, through an initiative called Starlink, he's trying to blanket the Earth in high-speed internet. Here's what you need to know about it.

OneWebGallery image 4
  • Starlink is a SpaceX initiative currently in testing
  • Consists of a network of satellites that beam internet down
  • These will be put into low-Earth orbit by 2020
  • First two experimental satellites will launch in February 2018

SpaceX's Starlink initiative consists of a huge network - aka a "constellation" - of satellite spacecraft that will hang out in low-Earth orbit, with the purpose of beaming internet service around the globe. According to a letter posted on the FCC's website, SpaceX is expected to launch the first two experimental satellites, called Microsat-2a and Microsat-2b, via one of its Falcon 9 rockets on 18 February 2018.

WikiGallery image 1
  • Starlink began in 2015 after Musk filed a proposal with FCC
  • SpaceX trademarked the name Starlink in 2017
  • In 2018, FCC endorsed SpaceX's Starlink plan
  • Three other similar projects are already in development

Musk, a billionaire who helped form PayPal and later Tesla and SpaceX, asked the US federal government in 2015 for permission to begin testing an ambitious project: an internet-beaming satellite network from space. It's a significant initiative that would create massive competition for Comcast, AT&T, and other telecom companies. In his proposal, Musk said the service could be up and running within five years.

In September 2017, SpaceX filed documents seeking to trademark the name “Starlink” for a satellite network that would provide global broadband access to data and video services as well as Earth imagery and remote sensing. In addition to that application, SpaceX filed a second set of documents focusing on the satellites, receivers, and other equipment that would be required for Starlink services.

Five months later, the FCC endorsed SpaceX's ambitious plan to provide internet service around the globe using thousands of satellites. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said, "Satellite technology can help reach Americans who live in rural or hard-to-serve places where fiber-optic cables and cell towers do not reach... And it can offer more competition where terrestrial internet access is already available."

In the statement, Pai also said that he has urged the other four FCC commissioners to give Starlink the green light. And he noted that the FCC has already approved three other satellite-internet projects currently in development by OneWeb, Space Norway, and Telesat.

NASAGallery image 2
  • Two constellations will be put into LEO and very LEO
  • They will consist of over 12,000 small satellites
  • The system will provide speeds of 1Gbps
  • Testing will begin soon, and much more work is needed

SpaceX's FCC application technically proposes deploying two constellations. One will be in low-Earth orbit (LEO). That's about 1,100km (684m) and 1,325 km (823m) above Earth. This first constellation will be made up of 4,425 small satellites. The proposal also calls for a second, larger constellation in very low-Earth orbit, which is around 340km (211m) altitude, and it consists of 7,518 satellites.

The goal is to provide low-latency broadband to rural places with little or no internet access and to improve speeds and coverage in areas with mediocre access. The system is designed to provide speeds of 1Gbps, which is comparable to speeds currently offered by ground-based fiber optic networks. SpaceX also hopes that becoming a global internet service provider will help fund its missions to Mars.

SpaceX's first two experimental satellites, Microsat-2a and Microsat-2b, will be deployed in February 2018. They'll be deployed in one mission, aboard a SpaceX Falcon-9 v1.2 launch vehicle. The company needs to begin testing soon, as it still has to figure out how to simultaneously coordinate thousands of satellites in non-geostationary orbit at all times. After all, they won’t stay in a fixed position.

Furthermore, SpaceX needs to implement the technology required to receive the beamed internet on Earth. As the satellites will constantly move, the receiving antennas must rapidly determine which satellite is best to communicate with at any given time. SpaceX also must access part of the radio spectrum, which is the range of airwave frequencies that will be used to send the internet down from space.

SpaceX has filed numerous applications with the FCC to get this done. So far, the FCC has been receptive and endorsed Starlink.

SpaceXGallery image 3
  • Initial operations will kick-off by 2020
  • By 2025, SpaceX expects to have 40 million subscribers
  • That should bring in $30 billion in revenue a year
  • The funds will help fund SpaceX's mission to Mars

SpaceX aims to get Starlink's initial operations going by 2020. 

The space company expects to have more than 40 million subscribers to its global satellite broadband service by 2025, and that it'll bring in more than $30 billion in revenue that year, according to The Wall Street Journal, which obtained internal company documents last year.

  • It's unclear. We're in early days still.

SpaceX hasn't priced out a subscription to its internet service yet.