Constellation Growth

As of this morning, SpaceX has launched 1,323 v1 Starlink satellites. About 900 of them are on-station and operational. About 400 of them are still maneuvering to achieve their final orbits. And just under 30 of them were or are going to be de-orbited because of some kind of failure. After a few more launches, all of the satellites for the first shell should be in orbit.

Starlink Speeds to Come

What kind of speeds can we expect from Starlink’s satellite internet service when it exits beta?

When SpaceX first applied to launch and operate a constellation of 4,425 satellites they told the FCC that with the complete rollout, users would see up to 1 Gbps speeds.

Right now, there are about 900 satellites in operational orbits and SpaceX is advertising speeds of 50 Mbps to 150 Mbps to its beta program participants.

In a more recent filing with the FCC, a petition to adjust the orbits for the remainder of those 4,425 satellites, SpaceX said that they are currently able to provide 100 Mbps and will in the future be able to provide 10 Gbps!

Elon Musk also tweeted recently that by the end of this year speeds would double to 300 Mbps. Many beta testers, myself included, are already seeing top speeds in that range.

My prediction is that this year SpaceX will complete the first orbital shell of the constellation with about 1600 operational satellites and Starlink will exit beta, becoming available to the general population with minimum speeds of 100 Mbps and maximum speeds of around 300 Mbps.

Then, as the constellation fills out to that 4,425 number over the next couple of years, minimum speeds should increase and maximum speeds will probably reach the promised 1 Gbps mark.

But 4,425 isn’t the end of the constellation, just Phase 1. Phase 2 will add another ~7,500 satellites and later extensions could see the constellation grow to as many as 42,000 satellites. These later satellites will be newer more capable versions and that combined with their sheer numbers could lead to those promised 10 Gbps speeds.

What’s the Deal?

SpaceX and Starlink, what’s the deal with all my posts lately.

Elon Musk got his start developing (and selling) an online yellow pages-type site in the 90s. He used that money to fund his next project, an online bank called X.com. Musk earned his first real fortune about three years later when he sold his stake in Paypal. (Musk’s company, X.com and another company, Confinity, had merged to become Paypal.)

Musk had been talking about Mars for a while and with just shy of 200 million dollars in his pocket from the Paypal sale, Musk decided he would use some of his new fortune to send a rocket to Mars. The trip was intended to re-ignite excitement about space and space exploration.

To find his Mars rocket, first he went to Europe to see if he could buy one from Arianespace. Musk decided they wanted too much for their rocket and next he tried to buy an intercontinental ballistic missile from Russia. Again the price wasn’t right, and after these two failures, Musk decided he would just build his own rocket. (How hard could it be, right?)

He became a student of rocketry, aerodynamics, space launch systems, and more. He read all the textbooks and papers. He talked to all the experts in all the fields. And then he began to hire them. They would form a company and build an initial test rocket, called Falcon 1, that in about 5 years of development time would become the first privately funded liquid fueled rocket to achieve Earth orbit. That company, called SpaceX, would, about 5 years later, in 2010 launch a second generation rocket, the Falcon 9. Falcon 9 would evolve over the next 5 years to become a partially re-usable rocket (the bigger and more expensive part of the rocket, the booster, flies back to Earth, lands, and is used for repeat launches) achieving its first successful landing in 2015 and first reuse in 2017. Today, the Falcon 9 program has over 110 flights with about half being on reused boosters.

With a small fleet of these re-usable Falcon 9 rockets, and the steeply discounted prices they could offer, SpaceX was able to capture the lion’s share of the global satellite launch business over the next several years. And with that same program, SpaceX also gained a considerable share of contracts for U.S. Government launches including lucrative International Space Station cargo and astronaut crew missions.

Revenue from its space launch business was used to fund the design and development of SpaceX’s next ambitious rocket, a spacecraft that would eventually be called Starship. Taking re-usability lessons, and actual engineering and software, from the proven Falcon 9 program, scaling it up about five times, and making it fully reusable, the Starship program would be suitable not just for even cheaper access to Earth orbit, but, finally, Musk’s trip to Mars

Twenty years after his initial plan to send a rocket to Mars, Musk was finally getting close. But by this time, his goals for Mars had evolved. No longer was it about a single trip to Mars to inspire a new generation of space enthusiasts, to re-ignite a passion for space exploration that had mostly cooled since the end of the Space Race. No, now his plan was much grander, to make human civilization multi-planetary by sending a million people to Mars.

Now, this new plan, a city on Mars, is going to require a massive fleet of fully reusable Mars rockets (they have to fly back from Mars, afterall, and it’s going to take many repeat trips, even with a large fleet, to deliver a colony to Mars.) Musk and SpaceX have already built and tested several full-scale prototypes of this new Starship rocket and it’s working well, but assuming the design proves sound, flexible enough for various mission profiles, and relatively cheap, SpaceX still has to build and operate a truly massive fleet of these for a Mars colonization project. And no matter how creative SpaceX is about keeping Starship’s costs down (they’re currently testing orbital and sub-orbital Starship rockets, built with stainless steel, welded together in a field, under some tents, in South Texas) a massive fleet of these massive rockets isn’t going to come cheap.

It had become clear to Musk that sending satellites, equipment, and people into low earth orbit, even if SpaceX dominated the market for those space launch services, wasn’t going to be lucrative enough to fund the production and maintenance of a Starship fleet large enough to transport a colony to Mars. Musk needed a new plan.

He looked around at what they had on hand at SpaceX, a new fleet of re-usable Falcon 9 rockets, a steady income from their space launch service, and a promising design for Starship, a vehicle capable of not only reaching Mars, but lifting gigantic payloads into Earth orbit. How could they leverage their existing resources to dramatically ramp up revenues, and quickly?

The answer was revealed in 2015 when SpaceX announced plans for a project to deliver high-speed, low latency internet from space, well, from a satellite, well, actually from a whole mess of satellites, thousands of them, probably tens of thousands. Now, to deliver high-latency, slow internet only requires a few giant, geostationary satellite and that only requires a few launches. But to deliver fast and reliable, true broadband internet service from space takes a whole bunch of satellites, as noted earlier possibly tens of thousands (assuming the they want the capacity to serve millions or hundreds of millions of people.) And that’s hundreds of rocket launches.

Well, what can SpaceX do better than any company on Earth? They can launch lots of things into Earth orbit quickly, and they can do it for dirt cheap. SpaceX’s plan would go something like this this. They would find a dozen satellite launch customers willing to pay for new Falcon 9 rockets, and then, after those commercial mission were flown, SpaceX would re-fly those same rockets, each one ten times or more (only paying for fuel and new upper stages, so super cheap) to launch thousands of their own internet satellites. (And when Starship is ready in couple of years, it will be able to launch up to ten thousand Starlink satellites each year and at a lower cost!)

They had a plan to accumulate the used Falcon 9 rockets, but they didn’t have two other important pieces of the puzzle. So SpaceX got into the satellite and antenna businesses. Once again, Musk studied up and he and SpaceX hired up some of the top people and they developed an inexpensive, super-thin and light satellite that could be built on an assembly line, flat packed, stacked, and launched into orbit by Falcon 9 in batches of 60. They also developed a consumer price-range phased array antenna that could track all of these low-flying satellites without actually moving. And they ramped up assembly lines to build the satellites and the user antennas in bulk. Today there are over 1,000 Starlink satellites in Earth orbit and that number will more than double by the end of this year — and by the end of next year there will be more Starlink satellites in orbit than all other companies’ and governments’ satellites combined.

Starlink, according to Musk, has two purposes. It exists to provide high speed, low-latency internet to millions of people around the world, mostly rural, who today lack broadband internet access or meaningful choice. And second, Starlink exists to fund the Starship program to eventually colonize Mars. SpaceX thinks that the Starlink satellite internet business can generate about 5 times the revenue of their space launch business and that’s just the kind of money they need to build, deploy, and maintain that massive fleet of massive Mars rockets.

So, this Starlink internet service that I’m testing out, and have been posting so much about lately, is also a means to Mars. And if there’s anyone reading this who was following me online back in the day, you’ll know that Mars exploration is a passion of mine. From Soujourner, to MGS and Odyssey, to MRO, Spirit and Opportunity, and through to today with Insight and Perseverance (and let’s not forget that Curiosity, Opportunity, MRO, and Odyssey are all still alive, kicking ass and taking names on and around the red planet.)

If SpaceX is successful with Starlink, Mars exploration will get a huge boost. Whether or not we will end up with a large scale colony on Mars by mid-century, I don’t know. But I do believe with Starship we could see the first humans on the red planet this decade. I think that would be amazing and that means you can expect to hear plenty more from me about SpaceX and Starlink (and Mars.)

Speed

Yesterday my Starlink terminal got a firmware update and today I’m seeing download speeds as high as 280 Mbps. That’s almost double what I’ve been seeing for the 5 weeks that I’ve been in the Starlink beta program. Impressive!

Vax

I’m really excited that I’m going to be getting my first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine tomorrow. My medical provider (and backup medical provider) both had too limited a supply to offer me an appointment but Walgreens seems to have plenty.

California opened vaccinations this week to a number of new demographics including people with certain health conditions which is why I qualify.

I’m not sure which vaccine I’ll be getting. The web tells me that Walgreens has Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, and Pfizer vaccines. I guess I’ll find out tomorrow.

Deanna’s already had both of her doses so in about 5 weeks I’ll be all vaccinated and we can start talking about things like visiting family and close friends.

Waterproofing

We’re going to be installing our Starlink terminal about 135 feet up at the top of a Doug fir in our back yard. Even this may not be enough elevation to have the required full sky view. There are several 200+ foot tall trees not very far away that may still obstruct some of Starlink’s view but we think it’s our best shot so we’re gonna go for it.

One challenge this presents is cabling. The Starlink terminal comes with a hard-wired 100 foot long ethernet cable (which does both data and power.) But the tree is at least 135 feet tall meaning that the cable doesn’t reach the ground where it plugs into the power supply. To remedy this, I’ll be extending the terminal’s cable with a 50 foot ethernet patch cable and the junction, where the two cables are coupled, needs to stay dry or it will corrode and fail.

My plan is to use an outdoor ethernet coupler which is IP67 rated (and so should be able to protect its contents even when submerged up to a meter in water for up to 30 minutes.) I’ll use some dielectric grease on the seals to ensure I get the most out of this coupler (I’ve read a at least one review from someone who found moisture on the inside so I’m going to go one step further.)

I’ve also purchased a small IP65 junction box which should be able to keep its contents dry in a heavy rain downpour. I’ll put the coupler inside this junction box with the cables exiting from the bottom side of the box and tack the box to the tree with several screws.

I think it’s possible that I’m overdoing it, but I really don’t want to deal with going back up the tree to repair or replace the coupler so I’m pretty happy with this solution. The outer box, which will have a couple of drip holes drilled in its bottom, should act as a decent umbrella for the more thoroughly sealed coupler inside.

Here’s what it looks like with the cover off.

waterproof ethernet coupler inside a waterproof junction box

NEMA Enclosure

I’ve been toying around in Sketchup to figure out the smallest enclosure my power supply and UPS will fit in and also how to mount them.

Starlink’s cable isn’t nearly long enough to reach from the tree top to the ground to my house (attempts to extend it beyond 50 feet failed) so I have to bring the power supply outside to where the Starlink cable does reach.

This is the enclosure I settled on. It’s a Altelix 14x12x6 Fiberglass Weatherproof Vented NEMA 3RX Enclosure with Cooling Fan and 120 VAC Outlets and there’s plenty of room for the power supply and a (very small) UPS.

I’ll 3D print a nice power supply mounting bracket I found on the Starlink forums and I’ll use Din rails and velcro to hold the UPS in place.screehsnot of sketcup model of NEMA enclousre with open door and inside is a mounted power supply and UPS

Starlink Tree Mount

I’ve nearly got all the plans for the Starlink tree mount finalized.

The Starlink system is very simple but my situation makes it more complex. There’s a terminal (the “dish”) that connects to a power supply. There’s a wifi router that connects to the same power supply. Both rely on the network cables for power. You plug the two network cables into the power supply, plug the power supply into the wall, and a few minutes later you have high speed, low latency satellite internet.

That’s how it works for most people. For us, the terminal can’t sit on the ground or the roof and must go up at the top of a pretty tall tree where it will have a more expansive view of the sky. The Starlink satellite constellation is still young and pretty sparse so the terminal needs to be able to look across a wide piece of the sky to maintain contact with enough of the fast moving satellites to provide a continuous connection. If the view of the sky is narrow, the terminal can’t see the next satellite as it comes over the horizon and the internet connection will drop until the terminal does have line of sight on that next incoming satellite.

The first thing I need to do is to extend the terminal’s cable by nearly 50 feet so that the cable will reach the ground from the top of the tree. (The tree is about 135 feet tall and the terminal’s built in cable is only 100 feet long.) For several days now I’ve been testing a 50 foot extension of 23 AWG shielded ethernet cable connected with a simple waterproof inline coupler and all seems fine. This was one of the most concerning parts of the plan. Extending the cable 100 feet didn’t work, leading to low power situations and reboots of the terminal. I’m really glad 50 feet seems to work.

Then I’m going to bring power to the base of the tree. I can’t extend the terminal’s cable more than 50 feet without degrading the system and that extension isn’t enough to reach the house so I’m going to need to bring AC out to the tree. I’ll tie into an outdoor outlet on our patio, hire a neighbor and his trencher to dig the ditch, lay about 30 feet of buried PVC conduit, and pull some THWN wires or UF-B cable.

Next I’ll install a fiberglass NEMA 3RX weatherproof junction box on a post near the base of the tree which will house the terminal’s power supply and a small UPS. The power supply gets quite hot so I’m getting an enclosure with a thermostat and exhaust fan. This box is why I’m happy I was able to extend the terminal’s cable. I really didn’t look forward to mounting it 30-40 feet up the tree. Not only would the mount be difficult, but later servicing would require a long extension ladder.

After that, I’ll run ethernet cable from the power supply in the NEMA enclosure to the house through an existing buried conduit (not in the same trench as the power line) where it will hook up to the wifi router. That will complete the major work on the ground for this install.

Once all of those pieces are in place, the tree climb will happen. I won’t be doing that myself but I will assemble the mount, gather up the tools and fasteners and be ready to assist the tree climber with that final step of the installation. The mount is a heavy duty J style satellite dish mount with two additional stabilizing brackets. The terminal will bolt to the top of that and and the cable will be zip tied to the mount and secured to the tree every 20 feet or so with cable clips to prevent strain.

Once that’s done, I’ll open the power enclosure and plug in the power supply. If all has gone well, I should have a ~150 Mbps internet connection which will be almost precisely 100 times faster than what we have today. I can’t wait.

Starlink’s View of the Sky

This is a view of the sky above our house (and a bunch of redwoods.)

Starlink isn’t happy with this narrow view so we’re going to mount it at the top of a topped Doug fir. I’ve marked the top of that tree with a circle. I think that’s about 135 feet up but won’t know precisely until the tree climb.
Small window on the sky looking up through the redwood trees

Observing Tree Heights

Today I spent some time playing with the NASA GLOBE Oberver Android app. One of the features of this app is an AR tool for measuring the height of trees. It works like this: you position yourself where you can see both the base and the top of the tree. Then you look through your phone’s camera, tilting the phone to mark the base and the top of the tree. Finally, you pace off the distance from your first point of view to the base of the tree. The app then makes an estimate of the tree height.

I found the app yesterday and performed a couple of quick tree measurements before it got dark and today I wanted to see how repeatable the measures were. I decided I’d take several measurements of the topped Douglas Fir where we plan on installing our Starlink user terminal. I measured 5 times and 4 of those measures were within a few feet of each other while one was about 15 feet different. I’m going to assume I didn’t hold the phone in a steady position for the outlier and that the cluster of similar results is the actual height of the tree (as well as the app can measure.)

So, what did I learn. First I learned that with some care on how you hold the phone height steady, while tilting it to bring the bottom and then the top of the tree into view, you can get very repeatable results even from different distances from the tree. The second thing I learned is that this topped Doug fir is taller than I thought. My original estimates (using the “stick method”) was that the tree was just over 100 feet tall. The NASA GLOBE Observer app tells me the tree is about 140 feet tall.

And this presents a problem for my Starlink mount because the cable on the Starlink terminal is hard wired to the terminal and it’s only 100 feet long. I had previously experimented with extending the cable 100 feet with an inline coupler and the resistance was high enough that the terminal wasn’t getting the voltage it needed and was rebooting frequently. So, I changed plans and instead decided to move the power supply out to the base of the tree and extend the other cable, the ones that goes from the power supply to the router. But I can’t easily put the power supply 40 feet up in the tree so it looks like I am going to have to extend that cable 40 or 50 feet to reach the ground. I’m crossing my fingers that I don’t see the voltage drop problem with a 40-50 foot extension that I was seeing with a 100 foot extension.

The tree I’m talking about is the far left one in this photograph. (Click the photo to see the full picture.) A previous owner had it topped well before we moved here. I’m not sure why they did that, but it’s “just” a Doug fir and not a redwood so I don’t mind too much and I’m hopeful that the tree will prove to be a good mounting location for our Starlink terminal.