How Elon Musk's 'UFO on a stick' devices may turn SpaceX internet subscribers into the Starlink satellite network's secret weapon

Mark Handley/University College LondonA computer scientist’s rendering of SpaceX’s constellation of satellites for Starlink: a scheme to provide global, high-speed, low-latency internet service.
  • In 2020, SpaceX plans to launch 60 Starlink satellites every two weeks, ostensibly to create a functional global internet service by the end of the year.
  • Customers would connect to Starlink using what Musk described on Tuesday as a device that looks like a “UFO on a stick” and only needs to be plugged in and pointed skyward.
  • Computer scientist Mark Handley previously calculated that Starlink can beat fibre-optic cables, in terms of round trip travel time for user data. However, that was before SpaceX said a key satellite-to-satellite laser technology wouldn’t be ready to launch until the end of 2020.
  • But Handley thinks SpaceX will use the “UFO” terminals as ground stations – a scheme that could be nearly as fast as laser links, and even faster than lasers alone when used in combination.
  • This suggests Starlink subscribers could become critical parts of a global, high-speed, and resilient mesh network instead of just end users.
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SpaceX is racing to launch about 1,400 satellites this year and boot up Starlink, a planet-wide, ultra-high-speed internet service. The rocket company, founded by Elon Musk, may ultimately send up 12,000 or even 42,000 in the coming decade.

To that end, SpaceX on Monday launched a pallet of 60 freshly redesigned Starlink satellites on Monday – adding to 120 experimental spacecraft already in orbit – and plans to pull off similar launches every two weeks.

With anticipation building over Starlink’s debut, company founder Elon Musk explained how future subscribers will connect to the service using a device called a phased-array antenna, which he said in 2015 should cost around $US200 each. (Though some industry analysts say such devices today cost about 10 times as much.)

“Looks like a thin, flat, round UFO on a stick. Starlink Terminal has motors to self-adjust optimal angle to view sky,” Musk tweeted, adding that all a user has to do is plug it in and point it upward. “These instructions work in either order. No training required.”

What Musk did not say is how, exactly, early adopters will actually send and receive data – whether it’s information about financial markets halfway around the world, or streaming video of “The Bachelor” on a Hulu server farm – using satellites moving around Earth at 17,000 mph, and in a dizzying variety of paths called orbital planes.

But Mark Handley, a computer science professor at University College London, posted a YouTube video on December 20 that models the Starlink network and makes some educated guesses. Handley said he used recent documents from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and statements from both Musk and Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and COO, to arrive at his conclusions.

If Handley’s latest guesswork is correct, each of Musk’s “UFO on a stick” terminals that users pay to handle their own data could be a secret weapon that helps Starlink get data for countless other subscribers to and from its destination – and do so at speeds that handily beat fibre-optic cables. (SpaceX did not respond to Business Insider’s queries on the matter.)

“This is the most exciting new network we’ve seen in a long time,” he previously told Business Insider. He added that the project could affect the lives of “potentially everybody.”

Here’s how Handley thinks Starlink might work this year and going forward.


Musk has said grabbing just 1-3% of the global telecommunications market through Starlink could pocket SpaceX tens of billions per year in revenue — much more than it may ever make launching rockets.

Dave Mosher/InsiderSpaceX founder Elon Musk.

SpaceX can launch 60 roughly desk-size, 500-pound satellites at a time into space within the nosecone of its Falcon 9 rocket system.

Elon Musk/SpaceX via TwitterSpaceX stuffed a fleet of 60 Starlink internet-providing satellites into the nosecone of a Falcon 9 rocket for launch in May 2019.

Source: Business Insider


In early 2019, Musk said it will take about 400 satellites to establish “minor” internet coverage and 800 satellites for “moderate” or “significant operational” coverage. The immediate major goal is to deploy about 1,500 satellites about 340 miles (550 kilometers) high.

SpaceXAn illustration of SpaceX’s planned Starlink satellite orbits around Earth.

The internet is basically a series of connected computers, but how they’re connected makes a significant difference. SpaceX’s gambit with Starlink is make access faster and more widespread, yet less laggy and expensive than is provided by current internet service providers, or ISPs.

Associated PressA router connecting multiple computers to the internet via cables.

A lot of our data is sent in pulses of light through fibre-optic cables. More packets of information can go farther with a stronger signal that way than they could via electrical signals sent through metal wires.

ShutterstockFibre-optic cabling.

Source: Business Insider


But fibre is fairly expensive and tedious to lay, especially between locations on opposite sides of the Earth.

Michael Smith/GettyReeltender Mo Laussie watches fibre-optic cable as he helps install the cable unto telephone poles June 21, 2001 in Louisville, CO.

Even within a country, achieving a direct wired path from one location to another is rare. Relying on ground cables also leaves many regions poorly connected.


Mobile services give us wireless access to the internet, but much of the core service depends on existing internet technologies, including fibre-optic cable networks.

Justin Sullivan/GettyA worker climbs on a cellular communication tower on March 6, 2014 in Oakland, California.

That’s because cell towers require line-of-sight to pass by data wirelessly. Geography, cost, regulations, property rights, and other hurdles make it practically impossible to build enough towers to link together this way.

Shutterstock

Meanwhile, fibre-optic cables have a speed limit: Light moves through the vacuum of space about 47% faster than it can through solid-glass cabling.

ShutterstockA prism bends and splits up white light into a rainbow of colours because the speed of light is slower in glass than it is in air.

Source: Florida State University


This isn’t an issue for normal browsing or streaming TV shows. But over international distances, it leads to high latency, or lag. Handley said time delay is especially pronounced in long-distance videoconferencing and voice calls made over the web.

Carolyn Kaster/APThe president speaks with children over a video conference.

Data beamed over existing satellites is some of the laggiest. That’s because nearly all those spacecraft orbit from 22,236 miles (35,786 kilometers) up, where they can “float” above one location on Earth. That’s enough distance to cause a more than half-second of lag.

NASA’s Scientific Visualisation Studio; Business InsiderAn illustration of two different geostationary satellites, which orbit about 22,300 miles above Earth’s surface.

Source: University College London


Handley said that latency matters most to financial institutions. With markets that move billions of dollars in fractions of a second, any delay can lead to big losses over a competitor with a less laggy (and thus more up-to-date) connection to the web.

Reuters / Brendan McDermidHigh-frequency-trading companies will try almost any new technology to learn about market changes before a competitor.

Shuttling data around the world via satellite — and mostly through the vacuum of space, not glass — could cut that lag while also providing screaming-fast internet service almost anywhere on Earth.

SpaceXAn illustration of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet constellation in orbit around Earth.

Source: Business Insider


SpaceX deploys each flat-packed stack of 60 satellites at once, yet very slowly rotates it in microgravity. This causes the stack to spread out like “a deck of cards on a table,” Musk said in 2019.

Source: Business Insider


From there, the satellites use Hall thrusters (or ion engines) to rise to an altitude of about 342 miles (550 kilometers). This is about 65 times closer to Earth than geostationary satellites — and that much less laggy.

NASAA 13-kilowatt Hall thruster, or ion engine, being tested at NASA’s Glenn Research Centre in Cleveland, Ohio.

Starlink spacecraft are designed to link to four other satellites using laser beams. No other internet-providing satellites do this, Handley said, and it’s what would make them special: They can beam data over Earth’s surface at nearly the speed of light, bypassing the limitations of fibre-optics, cell towers, and other ISP technologies.

Mark Handley/University College LondonAn illustration of Starlink, a fleet or constellation of internet-providing satellites designed by SpaceX. This image shows how each satellite connects to four others with laser beams.

Source: University College London


But for now, no Starlink satellites have lasers. Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and COO, told reporters in October that laser links won’t go on satellites until late 2020 at the soonest.

Dia Dipasupil/Getty ImagesGwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and COO, in 2017.

Source: CNN


Until then, Musk says the company will link them via ground stations. A handful of sizable yet steerable antennas that can track satellites will be used to “talk” to the satellites.

Dave Mosher/Business InsiderSatellite tracking antennas in South Texas.

There are also small user terminals for the customers to connect — the ones Musk he said look like “a UFO on a stick” or, previously, “a sort of a small- to medium-size pizza.” (Though he or SpaceX has yet to show a picture of one.)

ShutterstockRows of pizza boxes.

Source: FCC


That’s small enough to add to a home. “There’s also no reason one of these couldn’t be flat and thin enough to put on the roof of a car,” Handley said.

TeslaA Tesla Model Y electric car.

Musk said Starlink terminals would also easily fit on ships, aeroplanes, and other mobile devices, enabling these vehicles to have better broadband connections than what’s available today.

NAN728/Shutterstock

Musk said just 1,000 satellites are required “for the system to be economically viable.” He noted that’s “obviously a lot of satellites, but it’s way less than 10,000 or 12,000.”

Mark Handley/University College LondonA computer scientist’s rendering of SpaceX’s constellation of satellites for Starlink: a scheme to provide global, high-speed, low-latency internet service.

But according to SpaceX’s FCC filings, the company expects to operate 1 million ground stations. Handley thinks the small terminals will not just download and upload one user’s data, but also act as critical nodes before the laser links are ready — turning customers into a kind of global mesh network.

Mark Handley/University College LondonA computer scientist’s rendering of SpaceX’s constellation of satellites for Starlink: a scheme to provide global, high-speed, low-latency internet service.

Source: FCC


Handley and others previously assumed SpaceX would only use lasers because they took the most direct (and fastest) path through space. But Handley’s new analysis of Starlink’s network suggests turning customers into relays would make the network even faster and more resilient.

Mark Handley/University College LondonAn illustration of Starlink, a fleet or constellation of internet-providing satellites designed by SpaceX. This image shows the shortest path in the network between New York and London.

Without lasers, data could get to and from computers around the world through Starlink by bouncing from satellite to a user terminal, then to another satellite within view, and so on in a zig-zag daisy-chain at the speed of light.

Mark Handley/University College LondonA computer scientist’s rendering of SpaceX’s constellation of satellites for Starlink: a scheme to provide global, high-speed, low-latency internet service.

Handley calculated this would significantly beat the lag of the current internet, and even a hypothetical one made entirely of uninterrupted fibre-optic cable.

Source: Mark Handley/University College London


And as more users sign up and plug in their UFO-like terminals, Starlink satellites overhead may have more options for building optimal paths to transmit data.

Mark Handley/University College LondonAn illustration of SpaceX’s constellation of thousands of Starlink satellites to provide global, high-speed, low-latency internet.

Source: Mark Handley/University College London


Customer terminals also solved a problem Handley previously saw with planned laser links: Due to the arrangement of the satellites in space, some connections — like London to Johannesburg — had to go out of their way, causing them to be slower than fibre-optic cables.

Mark Handley/University College LondonA computer scientist’s rendering of SpaceX’s constellation of satellites for Starlink: a scheme to provide global, high-speed, low-latency internet service.

Source: Mark Handley/University College London


Using terminals alone made the trip much quicker, according to his model.

Mark Handley/University College LondonA computer scientist’s rendering of SpaceX’s constellation of satellites for Starlink: a scheme to provide global, high-speed, low-latency internet service.

Source: Mark Handley/University College London


Mixing both the laser links and user terminals, though, provided the fastest of any solution to shuttle internet data to and from a location.

Mark Handley/University College LondonA computer scientist’s rendering of SpaceX’s constellation of satellites for Starlink: a scheme to provide global, high-speed, low-latency internet service.

Source: Mark Handley/University College London


One hurdle SpaceX needs to overcome before laser links are available: Oceans. Though ground stations strategically placed on islands could close the gap, Handley suspects terminals attached to ships would still be needed.

Source: Mark Handley/University College London


But even Handley doesn’t see too much of a problem. “Ships aren’t cheap, but they’re cheaper than rockets. So this is probably doable,” he said in his video.

US Air Force/1st Lt Alex PreisserA SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches Starlink at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, May 23, 2019.

Source: Mark Handley/University College London


It might be even cheaper for SpaceX to put ground stations close to fibre-optic cables and use them to bridge the divide, at least until laser links become available.


In any case, data sent over Starlink won’t magically know which path it should take; SpaceX will have to constantly calculate the locations of all its satellites and ground stations. But Handley said he was able to compute that in negligible with his personal computer “with a few devious tricks inspired by how game engines work.”

Mark Handley/University College LondonA computer scientist’s rendering of SpaceX’s constellation of satellites for Starlink: a scheme to provide global, high-speed, low-latency internet service.

Source: Mark Handley/University College London


Watch Handley’s complete speculative explanation about how Starlink might work below.

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