Musk Says Communications Satellite Constellation Still in Early Stages

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BOSTON — Despite a wave of funding and contract announcements by competitor OneWeb, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said July 7 that his company is still taking a “careful” approach to plans for a communications satellite constellation.

“A lot of companies have tried it and broken their pick on it,” Musk said in response to an audience question during an appearance at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference here. “We want to be really careful about how we make this thing work, and not overextend ourselves.”

Musk revealed SpaceX’s interest in a communications satellite constellation in January, saying the company planned to develop a system of 4,000 satellites in low Earth orbit to provide broadband Internet access. Those satellites would be designed, and perhaps built, at a commercial satellite development center the company established in the Seattle suburb of Redmond, Washington.

In May, the company submitted an application to the Federal Communications Commission for an experimental Ku-band license for the first in a series of test satellites the company plans to launch. “We’re hopefully going to launch a test satellite next year,” Musk said in Boston, not going into detail about the satellite’s capabilities.

Musk indicated that SpaceX was not in a rush to develop the system. “We’re still in the early stages of a big LEO constellation communications idea,” he said. “I think the long-term potential of it is pretty great, but I don’t want to overplay or overstate things.”

That approach is in contrast to OneWeb, which in recent weeks has announced a series of milestones in its own LEO broadband satellite system. On June 15, the company announced a contract with Airbus Defence and Space to build up to 900 satellites, most of which will be constructed at a dedicated plant in the United States.

Ten days later, OneWeb announced a $500 million financing round from a number of investors, including Qualcomm, Virgin Group, Intelsat, and Coca-Cola. OneWeb also signed launch contracts with Arianespace and Virgin Galactic for 21 and 39 launches, respectively, calling it the largest commercial launch order in history.

Musk didn’t offer a schedule for SpaceX’s own system, beyond the fact that work on it is still in its early stages. He instead emphasized the benefits of the system, including the planned use of intersatellite links. He argued that approach, as well as the fact that light travels faster in a vacuum than through materials like glass, would provide for lower latency than fiber optic systems. “You have a more direct path through space, and photons move faster,” he said.

“We’re being fairly careful about it,” he concluded, “but I think this is something that should be built and would be quite good to have.”