SpaceX is adding laser links to the Starlink satellites to serve Earth’s polar regions

SpaceX is adding laser links to the Starlink satellites to serve Earth's polar regions
Zoom in / The Starlink logo applied to a stylized image of the Earth.

SpaceX has begun launching Starlink satellites with laser links that will help provide broadband coverage in polar regions. As CEO of SpaceX, Elon Musk He wrote on Twitter on Sunday, These satellites “have laser links between the satellites, so there is no need for ground stations over the poles.”

Starlink satellites before launch.  The black circles in the middle are the laser links.
Zoom in / Starlink satellites before launch. The black circles in the middle are the laser links.

Laser links are included in 10 Starlink satellites It just launched into polar orbits. The launch came two weeks after SpaceX received the FCC Assent To launch 10 satellites in polar orbits at an altitude of 560 km.

“All the satellites that will be launched next year will have laser links,” Musk wrote in. Another tweet yesterday, Indicating that laser systems will become standard on Starlink satellites in 2022. At the moment, SpaceX is only including laser links on polar satellites. Musk wrote, “Only our polar session has lasers this year and it’s 0.9”.

SpaceX said Alaskans would benefit from the polar satellites Implementation To change the orbit of some of its satellites in April 2020. The plan is to “ensure that all satellites in SpaceX will provide the same low latency services to all Americans, including those in places like Alaska that are served by satellites in polar orbits,” SpaceX said at the time. SpaceX said the satellites could serve both resident users and the US government “in hard-to-reach polar regions.”

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The Starlink satellites communicate with earth stations, of which about 20 are Spread In the United States until now. a Space News Article Today described how laser links reduce the need for earth stations and provide other benefits:

Satellite connections allow satellites to transfer communications from one satellite to another, either in the same orbital plane or in an adjacent plane. These links allow operators to reduce the number of earth stations to a minimum, since the earth station no longer needs to be in the same satellite footprint as user stations, and to extend coverage to remote areas where earth stations are not available. They can also reduce latency, as the number of hops between satellites and ground stations is reduced.

The ten satellites were originally authorized by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for altitudes in the range of 1,100-1,300 km. FCC approval allows SpaceX to Cut the height in half It will help reduce latency.

With polar orbits, also known as sun-synchronous orbits, satellites “travel across the Earth from north to south instead of west to east, passing roughly over the Earth’s poles,” according to the European Space Agency He explains.

‘The space laser has exciting potential’

In December, during an interview with Ars senior space editor, Eric Berger, SpaceX chief Gwen Shotwell said demonstrating laser communications in space was among the company’s most important achievements in 2020.

I had SpaceX I showed A few months before the test Space laser To transfer data between satellites. Starlink engineers provided More details at Reddit AMA In November; Here is an excerpt from Our coverage in time:

“The speed of light is faster at vacuum than in fibers, so the space laser has exciting potential for low latency bonds,” said the Starlink team on Reddit in response to a question about the space laser test. “It will also allow us to serve users where satellites cannot see a ground gateway antenna – for example, over the ocean and in areas that are not poorly connected to the fibers.”

However, space lasers won’t be playing a major role in Starlink anytime soon. “We did an exciting flight test earlier this year using a prototype space lasers on two Starlink satellites that were able to send gigabytes of data,” the engineering team wrote. “But reducing the cost of the space laser and quickly producing a lot of it is a really difficult problem that the team is still working on.”

SpaceX is seeking FCC approval for more polar satellites

In November 2020, SpaceX urged the Federal Communications Commission to obtain urgent approval “to facilitate the deployment of 348 Starlink satellites in sun-synchronous polar orbits at low altitude,” the FCC said in its decision to approve the 10 satellites. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has approved these 10 only because it assesses interference concerns raised by other satellite companies.

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“ We found that the partial grant of ten satellites will facilitate the continued development and continuous testing of SpaceX’s broadband service in geographic areas of high latitude in the near term pending subsequent action to address the arguments in the registry regarding the granting of the modification as a whole and the entire subset of the satellites orbiting in Polar orbit. “

Amazon’s Kuiper, Viasat, Kepler Communications and Pacific Dataport project urged the FCC to turn down even a partial grant for 10 satellites due to the potential for increased interference with other non-geostationary satellite systems. But the FCC order said SpaceX was committed to “operating these satellites on the basis of harmless interference with respect to other licensed spectrum users until the committee decides to fully adjust them.” A battle between SpaceX and Amazon fermentationWith musk Accuse Amazon is trying to ‘block today’ Starlink Amazon satellite system This is at best after several years of operation. “

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