Plan for Testing Setup

I’ve determined that I need to run power out to a tree in in the back yard to make Starlink work. But it’s possible that the tree mount itself won’t work — that even 100 feet up in this particular Douglas fir the Starlink antenna won’t have a clear view of the sky. There are much taller redwoods all around that may still obstruct the view enough to make this location impractical.

So, before I spend a bunch of effort (digging the trench, laying the conduit, pulling the wires, hooking it all up) and a bunch of money (the NEMA enclosure, the conduit and tools, the wire and tools, the equipment rental) I’m going to verify that the tree mount actually works and I’m going to do that with an experimental setup.

The experiment needs to be low cost and low effort but it also needs to work for a while, weeks possibly months while I determine if this Starlink mount location is going to work. We could still get some light showers so the experiment setup needs to be water resistant if not water proof.

I think for the final job, I’d like to go with a $300 Altelix 14x12x8 fiberglass weatherproof vented enclosure with a thermostat controlled cooling fan. For the experiment I’ll go with something like a $15 Plano plastic toolbox and a $10 generic muffin fan. For the final job, it’ll be a couple hundred bucks for the wire plus (maybe) conduit and the trencher rental but for the experiment I’ll go with a $25 generic outdoor multi-outlet extension cord.

So, my ultimate Starlink power and enclosure setup will cost a bit and take some effort but if Starlink works, it will be a small price to pay. The $50 experiment will let me run with the Starlink service for long enough to determine if the location is going to work. That’ll save me the cost and effort of running power to where I don’t need in case that the location doesn’t work.

(If this tree mount doesn’t work, I suspect I’ll be investing a lot more money and effort in a very tall tower.)

Extend the Antenna’s Cable or House the Power Supply Outside

In order to have even a chance of a clear view of the sky, the Starlink antenna must live more than 100 feet from my house, probably something more like twice that distance. The antenna comes with a hard-wired 100 foot cable.

The design of the system is this. The PoE antenna connects to the power supply and the PoE router connects to the power supply. If more distance than the supplied cables is required, SpaceX recommends extending the router side because it uses standard PoE and can be as long as 100 meters while the antenna side uses non-standard PoE and is intentionally limited to about 30 meters.

I’ve determined though testing that extending antenna’s cable is probably not going to work well for me. Whether it’s my particular Starlink hardware kit, obstructions, or something else specific to my environment, or whether it’s a more widespread phenomenon, I’m in the unlucky camp that sees connection failures when extending the antenna’s cable (low voltage reboots even with very high quality 23AWG cable.) This is probably at least some of why SpaceX doesn’t recommend it. It certainly does work for some but may not for others.

I’ve also heard loud and clear from people on the Starlink forums that I don’t really know but seem knowledgeable and from people I know and trust here that the better solution is to just do the work to bring power to where I need it and get a nice weatherproof enclosure for the power supply. It’s not that difficult. It could be useful for other projects. And most importantly it’s most likely to give me a better Starlink service experience.

So, I’m pretty sure now that what I’m going to do is run underground conduit and power to the base of the tree where the antenna’s going to be mounted about 100 feet up. (What about direct burial of AC wires? Easier? Harder?) I’ll screw or strap a vented weatherproof enclosure to the tree which will house the Starlink power supply. Then I will, in a separate existing conduit, run a high quality ethernet cable from the router, which will live inside my house, out to the power supply enclosure on the tree.

By extending on the router side of the power supply rather than the antenna side, I won’t be adding any additional downtime to the system because of an unadvised hack. Instead, I’ll have power to an interesting location in the yard (with an enclosure that could also house an AP that would be well positioned to bring wireless connectivity to more of our property, including our little office/bedroom cabin on the creek which is currently not connected.)

But before I do the hard work of laying the conduit — where I’d have to tear up some landscaping (including moving some very large and heavy flagstone slabs) I’m thinking about prototyping the system to make sure it actually works by running an extension cord from my house to the foot of the tree and housing the power supply there in a piece of tupperware or something like that. We won’t get any significant rain again until October so I’d have time to do the work of building a more permanent solution while in parallel testing out that rest of my mount plans are even working. (Still not sure what obstructions will be like 100 feet up this Doug fir. There’s no good place to get a view until we’re at the top of the tree and we may find other taller trees are still obstructing too much for that location to work.)

Thanks to everyone who helped me explore extending the antenna’s cable. It seems to work so well for some on the Starlink forum that it was definitely worth the experimentation. Thanks also to everyone who helped me decide on running power to the tree.

It’s going to take some luck for Starlink to work at all for me given my location under so many tall redwoods. I shouldn’t push that luck by deviating from SpaceX’s recommended installation path. And that means leaving the antenna cable at 100 feet and instead extending on the router side of the power supply.

Starship

SpaceX is primarily a rocket launch company. They design, build, and launch rockets and spacecraft that ferry satellites to orbit and people to and from the International Space Station. Their workhorse launch vehicle is called Falcon 9 Full Thrust and the latest generation of that rocket, the Block 5, has been in service since 2018. (Earlier versions of the Falcon 9 Full Thrust date back to 2015 and the first version of Falcon 9 came out in 2010.) Falcon 9 will continue to be the workhorse for the company for a few years but they’re deep into development of their next generation rocket.

Where Falcon 9 is partially re-usable, the booster does a propulsive landing to be refurbished and relaunched, the second stage of the rocket is disposable. With SpaceX’s next generation rocket, dubbed Starship, the whole stack, booster and second stage, will be fully and rapidly reusable. Both will perform propulsive landings, and if all goes according to plan will be refueled and relaunched with nothing but light maintenance like we see in the aircraft industry.

Not only will Starship be fully reusable, it will be much larger than Falcon 9. Falcon 9 is 230 feet tall and 12 feet in diameter (pretty skinny for a rocket) and has a payload fairing that can carry 35,000 lbs (volume of about 5,000 cubic feet) to low Earth orbit. Starship will be 390 feet tall and 30 feet in diameter and will be able to ferry over 200,000 lbs (volume of almost 40,000 cubic feet) to low Earth orbit.

As soon as it’s ready, Starship will become SpaceX’s primary orbital vehicle. Today it is in the prototype phase and the upper stage has completed test flights up to 10 km with one successful landing.

One of the things that’s really exciting to me about Starship is that it will be able to launch about 400 Starlink satellites at a time (compared to the 60 they can launch on Falcon 9.) With Starship, SpaceX will be able to take the Starlink constellation to the next level, perhaps increasing its numbers by more than ten thousand satellites per year.

Power Over Ethernet

I’ve got a challenge with my Starlink setup. I need to extend the cable between the dish and its power supply. This is because the dish comes with a hardwired 100 feet of cable and I intend to go up a tree about 100 feet with the dish. I don’t want to have to locate the power supply at the base of the tree so I need to extend the cable to reach inside my house. That’s at least 50 more feet and closer to 100 feet if I want to run it through an existing underground conduit to a far corner of the house.

The dish uses power over ethernet (PoE) so both the internet data and the power travel across the same ethernet cable. Now here’s where the problem comes in. Starlink’s dish is very power hungry. It normally draws 100 watts! and can spike up to 180 watts!! That’s far more than typical PoE and probably why SpaceX limited the length of the cable to 100 feet. So, everything works fine with the 100 feet of cable that Starlink ships with but because voltage drops with the length of the cable, when I extend the cable by another 100 feet, the voltage drops enough that the dish is under-powered and fails to boot, goes into a reboot loop, or reboots when power draw spikes.

So, there are a few possible solutions I can think of (and I’m interested if any of you all have other ideas.)

The first solution is to find an ethernet cable with a thicker gauge wire. The thicker the wire, the less the voltage will drop. I’ve tested with 24 gauge and get the constant reboot loop. I’ve tested with thicker 23 gauge and don’t get the reboot loop but do get reboots when the dish draws more than normal power which seems to happen every couple of hours. If I could find some 22 gauge wire, it might be sufficiently hefty to keep enough voltage to prevent those semi-regular reboots. I can’t find anyone selling pre-terminated 22 gauge ethernet cable though so if I go this rout I’ll have to buy some bulk cable and do the RJ45 jacks myself. I guess that’s not a huge deal but it’s something I was hoping to avoid.

The second solution is to go with a shorter extension. The shorter the run, the less voltage drop and so if I drop down from 100 feet of extension to 75 feet of extension, I might not see the low voltage situation and the reboots. Dropping down to 50 feet would probably be even better but that would just barely reach my house with a more direct aerial run rather than the longer more circuitous underground conduit run.

The third solution is to not extend the cable and instead bring power out to the foot of the tree. This is significantly more work, digging a trench, laying conduit, and running wires from the house to the tree. And then I’d have to find a way to weatherproof the power supply (and the UPS I want to use with it.) That would mean finding some kind of case or building something like a small doghouse. The power supply gets quite warm and so what ever I buy or build to protect it from the weather would also need to be vented to allow it to stay cool. Maybe something like a vented battery box would work.

Starlink’s Path to Success Part 3

The third area where SpaceX needs to make progress in order to be successful with Starlink is satellite to satellite communication. Let me see if I can explain.

Right now, a Starlink customer has an antenna that connects to a satellite, and that satellite connects to a nearby ground station where SpaceX has a high capacity link to the terrestrial internet. The satellites are acting as a one hop relay to the regular old Earth-based internet network and SpaceX must maintain not only the satellite constellation but a whole bunch of ground infrastructure spread out across any geography where they want to do business.

To support U.S. customers alone, SpaceX already maintains almost 50 of these ground stations where their satellite network meets the terrestrial network. Any time they want to add service in a new geography, they have to add more of these ground stations.

To save on this cost, SpaceX wants to enable satellite to satellite communication so that your signal can go up to a Starlink satellite, then hop from one to the next until it eventually reaches a satellite that’s over one of SpaceX’s high capacity links to the internet backbone where it drops down to rejoin the internet. In essence Starlink becomes just another part of the internet backbone.

This will mean that Starlink can deploy to any geography in the world (where it’s legal to do so) without needing ground infrastructure there (unless it’s legally required to do so). Rather than having hundreds, maybe thousands of ground stations around the world to serve all of the unserved and underserved, SpaceX could have just a few large ground stations in strategic locations (where politics are amenable and there’s an affordable hookup to the internet.)

Not only will this ultimately save time and money, it will also allow SpaceX to reach new customers with Starlink — people who don’t live near any ground infrastructure at all. The laboratories at the poles come to mind, and ships on the oceans, and airplanes flying over the poles and oceans. Probably plenty of other remote places as well.

So, where is SpaceX with satellite to satellite communication? They have developed a laser interlink system and have deployed the first batch of satellites that include this system. That batch is in a polar orbit, and when they reach their final orbit (a month’s long process of satellite maneuvering) they will be covering a geogrpahy that doesn’t have any significant ground infractructure so it’s a great test case. Starting next year, all of the Starlink satellites launched will have laser interlinks and in about 4 years, the whole constellation will have the capability.

Oh, and one more interesting thing about laser interlinks. Light travels faster in space than it does in glass so it could actually be quicker to move some kinds of internet traffic across the space laser network rather than the glass fiber terrestrial network. In a race, a packet of information tavelling from New York to Singapore over Starlink could beat a packet traveling over the terrestrial backbone. For organizations who care about latency, whether it’s a CDN company or a high frequency trading firm, Starlink could be a faster network for some traffic and that could be rather smaller but very lucrative business for SpaceX.

Starlink’s Path to Success Part 2

SpaceX innovations have made Starlink *possible* but what will it take to make Starlink successful? In a previous post I discussed the need for SpaceX to increase the pace of satellite launches. In this post I’m going to talk about reducing the cost of the equipment.

Because Starlink satellites are in very low orbits, they move across the sky quickly and that means a Starlink customer needs an antenna that can track the satellites. There are a few ways to accomplish this tracking, including motors that mechanically steer the antenna(s) to follow the satellites. But that’s not the rout SpaceX took for Starlink. Instead, SpaceX designed a solid state phased array antenna which can digitally track the satellites without physically moving the antenna. (Note: the Starlink antenna does have two motors for aiming but those are only used for the initial pointing of the antenna so that customers don’t have to worry about how to aim, or hiring a professional installer. Once it’s pointed in the optimal direction, the motors shut down.)

The challeng SpaceX faces with this approach is cost. A phased array that talks to satellites hundreds of miles away is not a cheap endeavor. Estimates are that SpaceX’s costs for the first generation of this antenna are around $2,500 per unit. That’s a pretty steep price for a consumer to pay for equipment (though, no doubt, there are some people desperate enough for better internet service to happily pay that price.) SpaceX has chosen an equipment price of $500 and so each customer that joins Starlink is costing SpaceX about $2,000 in up front subsidies.

I think SpaceX has a short term plan to drive the costs of the phased array antenna down pretty dramatically simply by producing them in higher volume — not changing the design significantly. A next generation antenna might garner further savings through better miniaturization and design, but I think it will be cheaper suppliers, and assembly efficiencies that come with high volume that will make the most impact in the near term.

Because SpaceX chose to build a computer for an antenna (it even has an ARM CPU, along with a GPS chip, power management, and the phased array which is a bunch of RF ICs on a large PCB) we can expect the price to come down with time and new technology generations — just like laptops and phones become more capable and more affordable every year. In 5 years or so I think the antenna cost problem will be well in hand.

So, today every new Starlink customer costs SpaceX about $2,000 and with a monthly service fee of $99 that customer will not become profitable for almost two years. That’s a long time to wait for profits to start rolling in but SpaceX is in a race for customers with several other low Earth orbit internet constellations — mostly OneWeb and Amazon’s Kuiper, so I think they’re going to have to deal with this negative for the immediate future while production ramps up from tens of thousands of units to hundreds of thousands and then millions.

(It’s also possible that SpaceX will open Starlink to businesses and governments where they may not need to subsidize the antenna and in fact the price to large organizations could actually end up subsidizing residential consumers’ equipment.)

The Plan

Here’s a rundown of what I’ve got so far for mounting the Starlink “dish” in the tree and extending its cable to my house. Prices are as used but I had to buy some of the items in bulk so my actual costs are a bit higher. Also I bought online rather than going into a hardware store during the pandemic so prices aren’t necessarily the best I could get if I was willing to risk COVID-19.

Mounting the Antenna: Using a J pole mount with a couple of extra support brackets attached to the tree with super long structural screws. Cable management is zip ties and cable clips with long wood screws.

Main mast: 1 of Channel Master CM-3090 Telescoping Universal Antenna Mast ($54)
Antenna connection to mast: 1 of 1/2 x 3″ Grade 8 Hex Cap Bolt, Nut, Flat & Lock Washers ($6)
Stabilize mast: 2 of 8″ Heavy-Duty Antenna Wall Mounts ($24)
Secure mast and mounts: 10 of 1/4 X 12″ Hex Head XERATH Timber Framing Wood Screws ($10)
Secure cable to mast: 4 of TR Industrial Ultra Heavy Duty Multi-Purpose UV Cable Ties ($1.50)
Secure cable to tree: 10 of THE CIMPLE CO Cable Clips ($7)
Secure cable to tree: 10 of #8 X 4″ Stainless Oval Head Phillips Wood Screw ($3)

Extending the Cable: Using an outdoor rated coupler to add 100′ of Cat5e cable length. The coupler is housed in a second waterproof cover.

Ethernet Extension: 1 of 100′ American Teledata Outdoor CAT 5E Shielded UV Rated Patch Cord ($40)
Ethernet Coupler: 1 of VCE IP67 Waterproof RJ45 Shielded Female to Female Coupler ($10)
Weather resistance: 1 of CordSafe Electrical Extension Cord Protective Safety Cover ($7)
Weather resistance: Henkel Corporation Loctite Clear Silicone Waterproof Sealant ($5)

Tools: Impact driver and bits for fasteners. A drill guide, clamps and bit for drilling the J pole to couple to the dish’s mast.

Drilling pilots and driving fasteners: Milwaukee M12 Fuel 2nd Gen Impact Driver and XC 6.0 battery ($200)
Drilling pilot holes: Bosch 3/16″ Impact MultiConstruction Drill Bit ($6)
Driving various fasteners: DEWALT Nut Driver Set, Impact Ready, Magnetic, 5-Piece ($19)
Drilling main mast for coupling to antenna mast: Milescraft 1312 DrillBlock- Handheld Drill Guide ($14)
Drilling main mast for coupling to antenna mast: Irwin QUICK-GRIP Bar Clamp, 6-Inch, 2-Pack ($20)
Drilling main mast for coupling to antenna mast: DEWALT Drill Bit, Impact Ready, Titanium, 1/2″ ($18)

Diagram showing Starlink tree mount

Starlink Questions

I got a great couple of questions on an earlier post about Starlink. My good friend Tobi asked about concerns that massive satellite internet constellations could lead to a bunch of space junk in orbit and also concerns that these constellations will cause problems for astronomers.

SpaceX, with 12,000 or more Starlink satellites in it’s completed constellation, won’t be the only company in the low-flying internet satellite game. OneWeb already has satellites in orbit and they want to put up at least 7,000 total up there. Amazon’s Kuiper hasn’t put anything in orbit yet but they want to launch at least 3,000 satellites pretty soon. And don’t expect major governments to stay out of this game. In just a few years we will have more internet satellites in low Earth orbit than all other orbiting satellites combined, working and dead. And these satellites have a fairly short lifetime, 5 years or so before they run low on fuel and must spend their last remaining fuel to de-orbit.

SpaceX is planning for the largest constellation of the companies I know about and they’re doing it seemingly responsibly. They have built Starlink satellites out of materials that will burn up completely when they de-orbit. The Starlink satellites have onboard ion propulsion thrusters powered by krypton gas. They use these thrusters to achieve their orbits, maintain those orbits against the drag of the upper atmosphere, and to de-orbit the satellites at the end of their lifetimes. Even if something goes wrong with a Starlink satellite’s thrusters, the constellation is low enough that it will only take a few years for the satellite’s orbit to decay and the satellite succumb to drag and burn up.

SpaceX is also working to mitigate Starlink’s impact on astronomy. You may have seen photos or videos of “Starlink trains” rows of lights moving across the sky. These bright satellite trains are only that bright while they’re in the process of raising their orbits. SpaceX launches the satellites into a very low orbit, about 155 miles up, and they then use precession to spread out and use their ion thrusters to raise their orbits to about 335 miles. That process takes a few months and during that time the satellites are low and clumped up and so fairly bright. SpaceX has cut down on that brightness a lot by changing the orientation of the satellites during orbit raise so they don’t reflect as much sunlight. But even when they reach their ultimate orbits, higher up and spread out, they still reflect some sunlight at dusk and dawn. SpaceX has mitigated a bunch of by outfitting all of their recently launched Starlink satellites with sun shades that eliminate a lot, but not all, of the reflection.

I think SpaceX has a firm handle on the problem of space junk. They’ve designed and built satellites and a process for replacing old satellites with new ones that will not lead to space junk. I think they’ve got less of a grip on the problems they may be creating for astronomers, especially hobbyists who may not have the tools to remove any Starlink interference from their data and images. They are working on it though and have made some real progress.

One idea I had was that SpaceX, which is after all a rocket company, could remediate some of the harm they may cause to terrestrial astronomy by offering free launch services to publicly funded (universities!) space telescopes. It costs anywhere from tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars just to launch a space telescope into orbit. If that barrier was gone, think about how many new space telescopes might be built, from great big ones like James Webb or Hubble to miniature ones like the BRITE nanosatellites, and everything in between.

I know that space telescopes can be more expensive to build and they can’t replace terrestrial ones for every use case, but by eliminating most or all of the launch costs, SpaceX could help usher in a new era of space-based astronomy. I think that could really help build some bridges with the astronomy community.

Starlink’s Path to Success Part 1

I previously posted some of the innovations that I believe made Starlink possible. But possible and successful are not the same thing. For Starlink to be successful, they need to make dramatic progress on several fronts and the first is launch cadence.

To provide really solid coverage to the initial (quite large, if the registrations are to be believed) group of potential customers, Starlink needs to have about 4,000 satellites in orbit. Today they have just over 1,000 satellites in service. About 1,400 will give them pretty solid global coverage but without the redundancy needed to serve as many customers as are ready to sign up. That’s because each satellite can only serve so many users in a particular area. To serve more customers in a given area means more satellites.

SpaceX launches Starlink satellites in batches of 60 with its Falcon 9 rocket. They fly “flight proven” rocket boosters for all of their Starlink missions and they have a fleet of 7 of these already been flown boosters to work with. (SpaceX keeps the cost of Starlink launches down by taking a rocket that a commercial launch customer already paid for, and relaunching it with its own Starlink payloads.) It takes them a while to refurbish and stage these rockets between flights but with some improvements to that turnaround time and if they can maintain their existing fleet size, I do believe they can dramatically improve the pace of Starlink launches.

In 2020, SpaceX had 15 launches putting 900 satellites in orbit and ideally they’d almost double that pace, launching something like 1500 sats this year and for the next couple of years as well. They’ve said they intend to launch about every two weeks and so far this year they’re hitting that pace. They’ve had some delays because of weather, both at the launch site and the booster landing barges out at sea, but it hasn’t yet knocked them off their quickened pace.

They’ve also had repeated delays with a launch of booster B1049 which has flown 7 prior missions and may be starting to show its age. SpaceX wants to get at least 10 flights out of each rocket booster before retiring them but they may find that the current Block 5 design doesn’t consistently hit that mark. SpaceX cannot afford to launch Starlink missions on new boosters so maintaining their fleet of flight proven boosters is quite important.

A further concern is the fate of booster B1059 which failed to land (crashed into the ocean) earlier this month, reportedly because of heat damage. B1059 had only flown 5 prior missions so hopefully it wasn’t wear and tear but some other issue that SpaceX can mitigate for the rest of the fleet if needed. As noted above, they can’t afford to lose too many of their flight proven boosters without it putting a real dent in their launch cadence.

In addition to an improved Falcon 9 launch cadence, SpaceX needs to make dramatic progress on its next generation rocket, named Starship. Where Falcon 9 is about 12 feet in diameter and 230 feet tall with a launch to low earth orbit capacity of about 50,000 lbs, Starship will be 30 feet in diameter and 400 feet tall with the ability to put 220,000 lbs into low earth orbit.

If all goes well with Starship, SpaceX should be able to carry about 400 satellites to orbit in one launch (compared to the 60 that Falcon 9 can hold.) Starship is also being designed to be rapidly and fully reusable so we could see amazing growth in the size of the Starlink constellation starting in two to three years when Starship should be ready to take over the Starlink missions from Falcon 9.

Starlink Innovation Part 3

The third key innovation from SpaceX that makes Starlink possible is the mass-produced, inexpensive, flat-packed satellite.

Because Starlink satellites fly very low to provide very low latency service, the satellites move across the sky very quickly and that means you need a lot of them to provide continuous coverage. Also, because one satellite can only serve a certain number of people for a given area, you want multiple satellites overhead of any location at any given time to be able to support many customers. SpaceX has already launched over 1,000 Starlink satellites and the constellation is just getting started with several thousands more planned for the first phase and even more than that planned for the second phase. If SpaceX is successful, they will have somewhere between 12,000 and 40,000 satellites in low earth orbit.

So, how do you build and launch thousands of satellites in short order? You mass produce them, at a low cost, and at a size and shape that makes it easy to mass launch them.

Traditional telecommunications satellites are gigantic in size, weight, and effort. A provider of traditional satellite internet could spend something like five or six years developing a single satellite at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. Because of their size, they rarely launch more than one at a time and launches can cost a hundred million dollars or more. If anything goes wrong with the launch or the orbiting satellite, it’s a catastrophic failure.

SpaceX treats satellites quite differently. They miniaturized and streamlined the design so they can fit dozens of Starlink satellites in the footprint of just one traditional telecommunications satellite. They’ve designed Starlink to be flat-packed to be densely stacked inside a rocket nosecone, 60 at a time. They’ve created a satellite assembly line that produces them for as little as a few hundred thousand dollars each, and as many as 120 a month. If one of them fails, even after launch, it’s no big deal because there are so many others and a failed satellite is easily and cheaply replaced.

Fast, cheap, and small, Starlink satellites are radically different than anything that’s come before and it’s those innovative characteristics that help make Starlink possible.