From The Editors Science

SpaceX’s  Satellite Broadband Plan Gets FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s Nod

Elon Musk’s intended foray into yet another business frontier got a major thrust on Wednesday when Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai gave his nod of approval to SpaceX’s plan of providing broadband services using space technologies.

Pai urged his fellow commissioners to give their consent to the California-based space company’s application, highlighting the space internet technology’s potential to provide broadband services to rural America and remote parts of the country.

The four FCC commissioners who will be considering the application are Mignon Clyburn (Dem.), Michael O’Reilly (Rep.), Brendan Carr (Reo.) and Jessica Rosenworcel (Dem.).

“To bridge America’s digital divide, we’ll have to use innovative technologies,” 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.”

Should the application get the majority votes it requires from Pai’s four fellow commissioners, SpaceX will become the fourth company after OneWeb, Telesat Canada and Space Norway to get the FCC approval for broadband satellite services out of a total of twelve applications that the agency has received until now.

“Following careful review of this application by our International Bureau’s excellent satellite engineering experts, I have asked my colleagues to join me in supporting this application and moving to unleash the power of satellite constellations to provide high-speed Internet to rural Americans. If adopted, it would be the first approval given to an American-based company to provide broadband services using a new generation of low-Earth orbit satellite technologies,” Pai said in a Wednesday statement.

With Pai in favor of the plan and two Republican commissioners most likely to give their nods as well, it appears that Musk is well on his way to realizing his space-broadband dreams.

And, with Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel saying that the move would “multiply the number of satellites in the skies, creating extraordinary new opportunities,” a unanimous decision in favor of the project seems like a foregone conclusion.

“The FCC should move quickly to facilitate these new services while underscoring our commitment to space safety,” Rosenworcel said.

If all goes as anticipated, SpaceX will deploy an array of 4,425 satellites to meet its broadband venture requirements.

It must be mentioned that OneWeb and Telesat Canada have FCC approval for 720 and 117 LEO satellites respectively, while Space Norway has the agency’s go-ahead for two highly elliptical arctic-focused satellites.

Pai’s words of encouragement comes at the most opportune time, at least as far as SpaceX is concerned, as the company prepares to launch its first set of prototype satellites named Microsat-2a and Microsat-2b together with Spanish company Hisdesat’s radar-imaging satellite PAZ atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California  on February 17.

After their launch, 511 kilometers above the earth, both the SpaceX demo satellites Microsat 2a and 2b will ultimately reach an altitude of 1,125 kilometers where they will do the groundwork, or should we say spacework, for the constellation of 4,425 satellites that Musk’s company proposes to launch by 2025.

Telesat Canada and Kepler Communications, also a Canadian company, are slightly ahead in the race in so far as demo satellites are concerned, both having launched prototypes in January.

While Telesat deployed its 168-kilogram smallsat with the help of an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, Kepler launched its smaller Cubesat atop a Chinese Long March 11 carrier rocket.

OneWeb, on the other hand, will launch its first ten operational satellites in May this year, bypassing demo launches altogether. The Arlington, Virginia-based company is looking to reach out to world broadband consumers with 500-Mbps connectivity as early as 2019, at least a year or two ahead of Telesat and SpaceX.

According to OneWeb founder Greg Wyler, the company should have its next-gen constellation in place by 2021, ready to provide five times as much speed to consumers at 2.5 Gbps.

While testifying before Congress alongside Wyler in October last year, SpaceX Vice President of Satellite Government Affairs Patricia Cooper said that the company will follow up its demo satellite deployments with operational satellite launches in 2019.

She said that the company was looking forward to providing some level of broadband service by 2020-21, by which time it would have some 800 operational satellites in low orbit around the planet.

Telesat, which currently operates 15 geostationary telecommunications satellites, has not yet decided on a manufacturer for its 117-strong satellite constellation.

The Canadian company, however, expects to begin its launches sometime in 2020 and be ready to start its service in 2021.

Like Telesat, Kepler has also not finalized a manufacturer for its 140-satellite constellation although the company is preparing to launch its second CubeSat prototype called ‘Case,’ later this year.

However, with its focus on providing low-data to Internet-of-Things devices, Kepler is not being looked at as much of a competitor to OneWeb, Telesat or SpaceX.

Kepler’s main competition comes from fellow Canadian company Helios Wire and Australia-based Adeline, with both companies looking to launch Internet of Things-focused satellites this year.

Meanwhile, Musk’s cherry-red Tesla roadster and its dummy pilot Starman, launched into space atop a Falcon Heavy rocket earlier this month, is drifting farther and farther away from earth as telescopes continue to track the car in space.

According to calculations by Czech and Canadian researchers, the car and its passenger have a good chance of continuing to remain in space for tens of millions of years before crashing back into Earth or Venus, reports BBC.

While the researchers give the car a 6% probability of crashing into earth, it has a 2.5% chance of colliding with Venus and little or no chance of hitting either the Sun or Mars in the next million years or so.

Here’s what Hanno Rein (Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, Canada), Daniel Tamayo (postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Planetary Sciences (CPS) and the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics – CITA) and David Vokrouhlicky (professor at the Astronomical Institute, Charles University, Prague) said about in their analysis:

“On February 6th, 2018 SpaceX launched a Tesla Roadster on a Mars crossing orbit. We perform N-body simulations to determine the fate of the object over the next several million years, under the relevant perturbations acting on the orbit. The orbital evolution is initially dominated by close encounters with the Earth. The first close encounter with the Earth will occur in 2091. The repeated encounters lead to a random walk that eventually causes close encounters with other terrestrial planets and the Sun. Long-term integrations become highly sensitive to the initial conditions after several such close encounters. By running a large ensemble of simulations with slightly perturbed initial conditions, we estimate the probability of a collision with Earth and Venus over the next one million years to be 6% and 2.5%, respectively. We estimate the dynamical lifetime of the Tesla to be a few tens of millions of years.”

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