SpaceX to offer Starlink public beta in six months, Musk says

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk gesturing with his hands and speaking during a conference.
Enlarge / SpaceX CEO Elon Musk at the Satellite 2020 Conference in Washington, DC, on Monday, March 9, 2020.

SpaceX will start testing Starlink broadband service in a private beta in about three months and make it available in a public beta about six months from now, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk wrote on Twitter yesterday. The first beta trials will occur in high latitudes, he wrote.

When asked by a Twitter user if Germany counts as a high-latitude area for purposes of the beta trial, Musk answered “yes.” Parts of the US would presumably be included in beta trials, given that SpaceX has said it plans to make Starlink service available in parts of the US this year.

The private beta would “almost certainly be reserved for SpaceX and Tesla employees and their families,” according to a Teslarati article. “Just like Tesla currently trials early software builds on employee cars, those customers would serve as much more regimented guinea pigs, likely offering detailed feedback throughout their trial of Starlink Internet.”

Meanwhile, SpaceX launched another 60 Starlink satellites yesterday. The launch, as Musk noted, gives SpaceX “420 operational Starlink satellites.”

SpaceX cuts orbital altitude in half

Meanwhile, SpaceX has asked for permission to operate thousands of Starlink satellites at much lower altitudes than originally planned, saying the change will result in better broadband coverage and less orbital debris.

SpaceX in 2018 got Federal Communications Commission approval to launch up to 4,425 low-Earth-orbit satellites at several different altitudes between 1,110km to 1,325km. In April 2019, SpaceX won FCC approval for a license modification to cut the orbital altitude in half for 1,584 of those satellites.

Now, SpaceX wants the FCC’s OK for another license change that would lower the altitude for the rest of the satellites and slightly reduce the total number. SpaceX told the FCC in a filing last week:

Specifically, SpaceX seeks to relocate 2,824 satellites that were previously authorized for operation at altitudes ranging from 1,100km to 1,330km to new altitudes ranging from 540km to 570km. Because of the increased atmospheric drag at this lower altitude, this relocation will significantly enhance space safety by ensuring that any orbital debris will quickly re-enter and demise in the atmosphere. And because of its closer proximity to consumers on Earth, this modification will allow SpaceX’s system to provide low-latency broadband to unserved and underserved Americans that is on par with service previously only available in urban areas. Finally, this modification will improve service to customers—including Federal users—in otherwise impossible to reach polar areas.

SpaceX now plans 4,408 satellites instead of the original 4,425. This number does not include an additional 7,518 broadband satellites that would operate at even lower altitudes from 335km to 346km. SpaceX has also floated plans for another 30,000 satellites, but it’s not clear how likely that is to happen.

Last month, SpaceX received FCC approval to deploy up to 1 million user terminals in the US.

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