Photos may show a SpaceX ‘UFO on stick’ satellite dish for Starlink

  • A Reddit user appears to have posted the first unambiguous photos of ground devices connecting to SpaceX’s Starlink satellite fleet.
  • The person said they drove through the SpaceX site near Merrillan, Wisconsin, and used a large telephoto lens to photograph the antennas.
  • The devices closely match previous descriptions of them by Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX. A label on the antennas also describes the hardware as prototypes and property of SpaceX.
  • Although Musk has said that Starlink could eventually earn tens of billions of dollars per year at SpaceX, he recently noted that reducing the cost of subscriber antennas, called user terminals, may be the project’s biggest hurdle.
  • Visit the Business Insider home page for more stories.

A SpaceX fan who lives near Merrillan, Wisconsin has apparently seen the future of the aerospace company in a rural gravel lot across the road from rows of corn kernels.

The photos, released Saturday by Reddit user darkpenguin22, may be the clearest and most unambiguous images so far of the terrestrial antennas described by SpaceX in federal documents for Starlink: a growing fleet of Internet-transmitting satellites that can orbit Earth by tens of thousands before the end of the decade.

If Starlink works as described by SpaceX founder Elon Musk, the aerospace company can earn tens of billions of dollars per year by getting people to connect to the internet with high-speed, low-lag internet from almost anywhere in the world. the surface of the planet.

While SpaceX has released many photos and videos of its approximately 570-pound, desktop-sized satellites, the company has yet to reveal any of its Starlink ground segment hardware.

SpaceX ignored Business Insider’s request to comment on the images and their content. However, the images appear to show authentic prototypes capable of speaking to flying Starlink satellites. The site also matches satellite images from a SpaceX test location in an April 29 notice from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and an enlarged view of the label on the devices says the units are prototype and proprietary. from SpaceX.

The images, republished here with permission, were taken with a high-powered telephoto lens from afar. They show two flavors of apparent Starlink antennas: a bulbous white radome about five feet in diameter, protecting the ground station electronics inside, and a much smaller and sleeker user terminal that Musk has described as a “UFO in a stick”.

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A user terminal that SpaceX may be using to test Internet connections to its Starlink satellite fleet.

Courtesy of darkpenguin22 (via Reddit)

There have been previous sightings of apparent Starlink prototype ground teams, such as in Boca Chica, Texas (where SpaceX is developing its new Starship launch system), but the new images more clearly show the hardware.

“I simply live nearby, so going there to take some photos was an easy way to contribute to the community,” darkpenguin22, who requested anonymity to maintain her privacy, said in a message to Business Insider. “I’ve been a longtime SpaceX and Tesla fan and work in IT as a systems administrator, so I’ve closely followed Starlink’s developments for both personal and professional / business purposes.”

The person added: “It could potentially become a very competitive alternative to corporate site-to-site links, at least in less populated parts of the country / world. I also see it as key to enabling efficient remote work for those of us who prefer a more rural lifestyle. “

A ‘UFO on a stick’ revealed

possible spacex starlink satellite internet user terminal ufo stick pizza phased array antenna prototype wisconsin darkpenguin22 reddit imgur GMnpPBg bi

A user terminal that SpaceX may be using to test Internet connections to its Starlink satellite fleet.

Courtesy of darkpenguin22 (via Reddit)

In its first phase, SpaceX plans to launch nearly 1,600 Starlink satellites at an altitude of approximately 340 miles above Earth. To that end, the company has launched 62 experimental and 480 operational satellites into space, although it is attempting to send a new batch of approximately 60 satellites approximately every two weeks.

Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, told Irene Klotz of Aviation Week in May that the company would “roll out the service in a more public way” after launching more than 800 spacecraft, that the company is on its way to achieve the fall.

The first phase of the satellites will orbit about 64 times closer than a typical Internet transmission satellite, so they might (in theory) be able to provide the Internet almost without delay. If SpaceX can prove its case to the FCC, the company may qualify for billions in federal grants aimed at providing areas with low or no quality broadband service.

However, the key to that effort is the devices that businesses and individuals will use to upload and download data to and from Starlink.

The larger ground stations would be used at key locations to help transport Internet traffic to and from the Starlink network. Meanwhile, Starlink beta testers and subsequent individual subscribers would use the smaller terminals to log into the network.

Elon Musk in 2015 said user terminals would be about the size of a medium pizza. Earlier this year, Musk further described a user terminal as “a thin, flat, round UFO on a stick” that would use motors to self-adjust to an “optimal angle to see [the] sky “and talk to SpaceX’s orbiting Starlink satellite fleet.

All that is required to set them up, the CEO said, is plug them in and point them to the sky. (“These instructions work in any order. No training required,” he tweeted Jan. 7).

The images of the shared satellite dishes on Reddit fit the description clearly. An enlarged part of a photo (not shown) also shows a label with a serial number and a notice that says:

Property of SpaceX
Prototype: not for sale or for rent
This unit is designed for demonstrations. [sic] Use only. This device has not been authorized as required by the rules of the Federal Communications Commission. This device is not offered, and cannot be offered, for sale or rent, or sold or leased, until authorization is obtained. Therefore, ownership must remain with SpaceX.

The size of the device also aligns with SpaceX’s patents for a phased array antenna component that appears to be within each user terminal.

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A patent application filed by SpaceX for a phased array antenna component that would apparently help Starlink’s Internet subscribers connect to the rocket company’s satellite network. Figure 1D shows the top of the proposed antenna, Figure 1E shows the layers of the device from one side, and Figure 1G shows a 3D exploded diagram of the various layers.

Google patents; Business Insider

The phased array, designed to quickly track and communicate with satellites in sight, is practically necessary for Starlink because the spacecraft moves overhead very quickly. Bowl-shaped dishes that do not move and point to a part of the sky, such as those used to point to a traditional television or Internet satellite, would not be enough to maintain an uninterrupted connection; However, a phase shifter dish can work together to electronically and almost instantaneously direct a transmission beam from one satellite to another.

SpaceX filed in February 2018 for patents in the United States and around the world for a “distributed phase change matrix system and method.” The US version USA It is pending, and the worldwide version is still under review, so neither the US Patent Office. USA Neither the World Intellectual Property Organization has granted a patent to SpaceX.

But Starlink has a long way to go

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A computer scientist’s representation of the SpaceX satellite constellation for Starlink – a scheme to provide a global, high-speed, low-latency Internet service.

Mark Handley / University College London

Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, is looking at Starlink as a colossal source of income to help finance SpaceX’s planned conquest of Mars. The company is authorized to launch nearly 12,000 of the satellites, although it is seeking to launch a total of approximately 42,000.

“For the system to be economically viable, it really is on the order of 1,000 satellites,” Musk told Starlink’s Business Insider during a press call on May 15, 2019. “If we are putting many more satellites into orbit than that, that it’s really a very good thing. It means there’s a lot of demand for the system. “

But while Starlink can complete beta testing of the system and begin the transition to public service before the end of 2020, turning the project into a source of money could take much longer.

As Musk told Aviation Week in May, cutting the cost of devices called user terminals, which would connect subscribers to Starlink’s orbiting satellites, remains a major hurdle. Currently, phased array antenna components cost around $ 1,500, although Musk wants to sell customers a “UFO on a stick” for around $ 200 to $ 300.

“I think the biggest challenge will be with the user terminal and making the cost of the user terminal … affordable,” he told Aviation Week. “That will take us a few years to really solve.”

The apparent conflict between the deployment of the public service before 2021, although with affordable user terminals around 2023, suggests that the cost of the devices may be significantly subsidized by SpaceX at first to allow the company to build a customer base for the net.

Do you have an insider story or information to share about the space flight industry? Send Dave Mosher an email to [email protected] or a direct Twitter message to @davemosher. Safer communication options are listed here.