On Monday evening, SpaceX, the rocket company founded by tech mogul Elon Musk, blasted a fresh batch of Starlink internet satellites into orbit. The mission added 60 new versions of the spacecraft to a network of 120 already circling Earth — a total of 180 launched into space.
Though several experimental Starlink satellites launched in May have stopped working, SpaceX now manages more private space satellites than any company, according to Ars Technica. (About 2,200 functional spacecraft orbit Earth today.)
SpaceX is just getting started, though: The company plans to launch 60 more satellites about every two weeks in 2020, perhaps ramping up missions to get as many as 42,000 flown before the end of the decade. The network should boot up after several hundred are in space, ostensibly getting early adopters online later this year.
But it remains an open question how, exactly, anyone will connect to SpaceX’s next-generation satellite internet network.
During a press call earlier this year, Musk described a computer-powered antenna terminal that would look like “a small to medium-size pizza.”
On Tuesday, Musk tweeted a colorful new description of a terminal.
“Looks like a thin, flat, round UFO on a stick. Starlink Terminal has motors to self-adjust optimal angle to view sky. Instructions are simply:
– Plug in socket
– Point at sky
These instructions work in either order. No training required.”
Musk uploaded no picture of a Starlink terminal, though he’s tweeted using a prototype that’s reportedly at his home in Los Angeles.
‘This is very different business for SpaceX’
Musk previously said Starlink terminal antennas will be “electronically steered,” allowing one can switch connections from one satellite flying out of view to one coming into view “in less than a millisecond.”
The addition of a steering motor, according to Musk’s tweet, suggests electronic switching alone is not be enough to maintain a reliable connection to satellites in typical use cases.
Musk said in 2015 that SpaceX’s terminals (before they earned the name Starlink) would cost $100 to $300 each. However, the cheapest any manufacturer is selling such devices today is around $1,000, according to industry analyst Tim Ferrar. As with Starlink satellites themselves, SpaceX is designing and manufacturing the terminals, which president and COO Gwynne Shotwell told reporters in October is no trivial task.
“This is very different business for SpaceX,” she said, according to Space News. “It’s leveraging space technology but it’s a consumer business.”
Starlink is not alone in the push to launch megaconstellations of internet-providing satellites, either. Iridium is beefing up its network, as is OneWeb. Larger tech powerhouses like Amazon, and possibly Apple, are also looking to establish their own fleets.
Though these fleets could bathe Earth in unprecedentedly fast, pervasive, and low-cost internet, not everyone has taken a liking to them.
Astronomers have repeatedly and loudly voiced their complaints about the brightness of the satellites in the night sky (which have prompted many reports of UFOs). SpaceX, to its credit, has coated the bottom, Earth-facing side of its new Starlink satellites with a substance to make it less shiny, though the move is experimental at this point.
There are also concerns about space junk: Launching so many satellites will increase the risk of orbital collisions and debris fields. SpaceX says its Starlink satellites use a small krypton-ion engine to move around and autonomously dodge high-speed threats, though a communications error led to a close call with a European satellite in September.