A pair of test satellites launched into orbit by SpaceX on Feb. 22 may herald the dawn of a truly global internet, one that makes high-speed service available not only in cities and in rural areas covered by cellphone towers but at almost any point on the planet.
Dubbed Tintin A and Tintin B, the satellites are prototypes for SpaceX’s “Starlink” initiative, which aims to place thousands of satellites in low-Earth orbit to supply broadband internet to users on the ground — including people in remote areas and even aircraft in flight and ships at sea.
“Don’t tell anyone, but the wifi password is ‘martians’,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk joked in a tweet as the satellites made their first orbits.
In reality, WiFi gear can’t tune in to the high-frequency transmissions the satellites beam down; for now only a few SpaceX ground stations can communicate with them. But SpaceX sees a day when space-based internet services will cost about the same, and work at least as well as, similar services offered via telephone line or cable. So instead of buying an internet plan from a cellular network or a cable or phone company, you might buy a plan from SpaceX.
SpaceX hasn’t said when its network could be ready. If Tintin A and Tintin B work as planned, the company could start launching a first wave of more than 4,000 Starlink satellites in 2019. It would likely take several years to launch the first 800 satellites that the company says are needed to make the network operational.
A later phase calls for the launch of an additional 7,500 satellites for a total of more than 10,000 — a “constellation” of internet-connected satellites capable of providing broadband internet from space that is “truly competitive with terrestrial alternatives,” as SpaceX said in an FCC filing approved on Feb. 14.