WASHINGTON — SpaceX, the upstart company led by Elon Musk, has already upended the space launch market. Now the company has its eyes turned toward the creation of a massive new satellite constellation, one that would have major repercussions for the commercial and military communications market.
A recording posted on YouTube of a Jan. 16 event announcing the opening of SpaceX's Seattle facilities shows Musk claiming the company has submitted paperwork to international regulators, the first step in securing the bandwidth frequencies on which his network could operate.
The system would be "about" the 1,100-kilometer KM level in space, solidly in the low-Earth orbit (LEO) range. Ground stations would cost $100-$300 each. The weight of the satellites would be in the "few hundred kilogram" range, and the overall network would eventually include 4,000 or so systems, almost doubling the number of active systems currently in space. Musk envisions the system going online in five years providing coverage for most of the globe, a timeframe he admitted is ambitious.
Following a series of regular updates, full capacity of the system would go online within 12-15 years, with an estimated price tag of $10-$15 billion. Musk indicated he is looking to hire about 500 people for the Seattle-based program to get the initial version of the system ready to go.
"The focus is going to be on creating a global communications system," Musk told the audience. "This is quite an ambitious effort — we're really talking about something which is, in the long term, like rebuilding the Internet in space."
At no point in the speech did does Musk mention whether the future constellation would be used for military purposes, and a SpaceX spokesperson declined to offer further comment on the satellite program.
However, if Musk can make the system work, it could have serious benefit for the Pentagon, which has struggled to provide with ensuring there is enough bandwidth for communications across the globe.
Marco Cáceres, an analyst with the Teal Group, pointed to the way the Pentagon leases bandwidth from Iridium as a potential path forward.
"I would imagine [Musk would] be interested in getting the military on board as a customer, much in the same way Iridium has," Cáceres said. "It gives the Pentagon another system if they need more bandwidth, more coverage. I would imagine that they would probably enter into a similar arrangement with Iridium, where they just lease capacity."
Brian Weeden, technical adviser to the Secure World Foundation, added that security will be a deciding factor in whether the Pentagon looks to SpaceX.
"A lot depends on the security of the service, and whether it can meet the Pentagon's requirements for encryption," Weeden said. "If it can, then I think the Pentagon could be a customer, like they are with Iridium."
However, the Pentagon is already the largest single customer for Iridium, and that company's updated network will likely meet department needs for the next few years. With that in mind, Cáceres doesn't see the Pentagon signing entering into contracts until Musk's network is up and running.
"SpaceX will have to prove itself, which will take at least a few years," Cáceres said. "So I don't think you'll see the military jumping on board anytime in the next few years."
Iridium spokeswoman Diane Hockenberry indicated the company does not see SpaceX, nor a similar system proposed by OneWeb Ltd., as direct competitors in the near future.
There are "many differences and advantages when compared to the two proposed systems, including our unique mesh architecture of cross-linked satellites that provides truly global coverage with no compromises," Hockenberry said. "Because we operate in L-band, which provides superior mobile voice service as compared to the higher spectrums these projects plan to use, we do not anticipate any risk to our existing business model, or competition for our voice, aviation safety services, or Department of Defense services."
As to the cost, Cáceres warned that satellite constellations tend to increase in price as reality intrudes on planning. However, he pointed out that a big chunk of the cost is tied into launch — something SpaceX would be able to do in-house with its Falcon system of launch vehicles.
Iridium, ironically, was one of the first commercial operators to select SpaceX for its satellite launch missions.
Musk acknowledged "similarities" between his proposed system and Iridium, but emphasized that the number of satellites in his system should lead to less risk. "If a satellite didn't work you'd just take it out of the constellation and deorbit it," he pointed out in his speech.
One question with SpaceX's plan is whether throwing 4,000 satellites into low-Earth orbit LEO would create traffic issues. Space, after all, is growing more congested as new countries begin launching systems into orbit.
Musk waved away concerns about that in his speech, noting that at the 1,100-kilometer KM level "there's just not a lot up there."
Weeden agreed that there is space for the proposed constellation at that altitude. height. However, he warned that SpaceX needs to focus on not creating further space debris with its system.
"That means managing the constellation so they don't run into each other, and then properly disposing of their satellites when they reach end of life," Weeden explained.
Musk acknowledged the potential issue of space junk and said it would be a big focus for planners going forward.
While the sheer number of satellites could pose a problem, it also may make the system attractive to the Pentagon, which has been exploring the idea of "disaggregation," or breaking the very expensive, gold-plated satellite systems into smaller, cheaper constellations, for the last few years.
While that push began was started under former Space Command head Gen. William Shelton, his successor, Gen. John Hyten, pledged to continue to look at moving towards disaggregation in a December speech.
"That architecture has to fundamentally change, and it is going to fundamentally change," Hyten said.
Regardless of Pentagon interest, Musk plans to go ahead with the system, with an eye on using profits to fund his true passion — the development of a city on Mars.
"This is intended to be a significant amount of revenue and help fund a city on Mars," Musk said. "Looking in the long term, and saying, what's needed to create a city on Mars? Well, one thing's for sure — a lot of money. So we need things that will generate a lot of money."
He added that SpaceX is unlikely to go public until there are "regular" flights to Mars.