SpaceX has always had
piecolony-in-the-sky dreams, founded as it was with the “ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.” But the company also intends to better life on Earth by launching 11,943 satellites that will give fast internet access to the globe.
According to details in November 2016 and March 2017 filings with the FCC, SpaceX’s idea is to use those satellites to make a truly World Wide Web, by beaming internet access to everyone, including the 57 percent of the global population that doesn’t access the online world.
That sounds nice, as does an interplanetary society. But Elon Musk—while he may care about humanity’s future and this planet and also other planets—is not running a charity. He’s running a business. And given the riskiness of the space-web market, something beyond a global internet service might help him turn a profit on these things.
In the past, satellite-provided internet hasn’t been a winning venture. Companies like Iridium, Teledesic, GlobalStar, and SkyBridge either disappeared or initiated bankruptcy proceedings in the pursuit. Musk wants to alter that narrative, and he isn’t the only one. A company called OneWeb plans to launch its first internet satellites—more than 600 to start—in 2018. Facebook, through its Internet.org initiative, is also invested in bringing access to the hard-to-reach people, who definitely have statuses they would like to update.
That makes financial sense for Facebook. But why would SpaceX jump on this particular bandwagon, given the huge upstart cost of launching thousands of satellites?
What if—hear me out—there’s more on its thousands of satellites than internet beamers? In commercial satellite land, if a satellite isn’t beaming communications information down to Earth, it’s likely taking pictures. Pictures its owner can sell. There’s a decent case to be made that SpaceX should stow away Earth-facing cameras on its internet satellites—if it’s not already planning to.
The Earth observation market—in which satellites keep a record of the planet and hawk it as images or analysis—is hot right now. It’s saturated with startups like Planet, which currently holds the soon-to-be-broken record for the biggest private satellite constellation (149). A tech giant like SpaceX could conceivably come along and squash some of those startups, by putting Earth-facing imagers on the thousands of satellites it was building anyway.
Let’s just begin by noting that SpaceX hasn’t said it plans to have cameras on its internet satellites, and a representative declined to comment specifically on the possibility or to grant an interview with a company engineer.
Nevertheless, there are a few hints that the sats might have cameras up their sleeves. In 2015, the company got a NOAA license for two prototype satellites. “This NOAA license allows each satellite to carry a single low-resolution panchromatic video imager,” it read. “The imager will capture low-resolution images and video of Earth and the satellite itself. The images and video will not be used for commercial purposes and could potentially be used for general educational purposes, such as through the release of inspiring public Earth images.”
I am all for inspiring public Earth images. I need desktop backgrounds, after all. But, again, SpaceX only exists because it monetizes things, in addition to making the children dream.
SpaceX didn’t end up launching these prototypes. Instead, it built two new ones. “Because SpaceX has made revisions to the design of its hardware and constellation since it applied for that authorization,” an FCC filing for these second-generation prototypes read, “it has opted to seek authority for different experimental satellites that will provide a better test bed.”
There’s currently no NOAA filing for the second set of prototypes, which the company plans to launch starting this year. But in that same FCC document, a table does list three “telemetry/video” transmitters, meaning the satellite will record video that these transmitters will then send back to Earth. This filmage will be of “key events on the satellite such as slewing and solar array deployment.” But it means that yes, Virginia, there are cameras aboard.
Now, prototypes are prototypes. There’s no saying for sure that any imaging devices will transfer to the real deals, and no indication in their FCC applications. Those documents do, after all, list the constellation as “fixed satellite service” and not “Earth exploration” (though according to the FCC, a company can formally amend that part of its application). And SpaceX could easily just use prototype cameras for inspiration or observations of sat performance, then toss them from the final designs. They could also end up providing public-facing and PR-friendly livestreams as they do for Falcon and Dragon cameras.
No one will know for sure for a while. SpaceX wouldn’t have to apply for that NOAA remote sensing license, for instance, until later in the game. “It’s more straightforward to get the imaging license than it is the communications side of things,” says Carolyn Belle, a senior analyst at satellite consulting firm Northern Sky Research.
Belle, in going through the technical details in the FCC’s many PDFs, noticed a few things in SpaceX’s application that made her go “hmmm.” First, SpaceX’s satellites will weigh around 850 pounds—more than twice as much as OneWeb’s. What’s with all the weight?
The answer is likely not “300 pounds of cameras,” but it’s definitely something, other than the naked minimum you need for up- and downlink, command, control, power, etc. “We don’t have technical specs of capabilities or what they’re putting on the satellite,” says Belle. “But that size differential is interesting to note.”
SpaceX’s first set of sats—4,425 of them, to begin launch as early as 2019—will orbit fairly far above Earth. That wouldn’t make sense for Earth imaging, because the more distant a camera is, the worse its pictures will be. But the company’s second and approximately 7,500-strong wave of satellites will stick closer in. “They’re going to be 350 to 400 kilometers up, which is really low for a satellite at all,” says Belle, because drag increases the closer to Earth you get. The company will have to adjust the satellites’ orbits more frequently to avoid having their paths decay and their parts burn up in the atmosphere. That’s annoying, and more resource-intensive. So why would SpaceX put their sats so low?
Well, it helps the internet work faster and better. But there’s something else: “Where that helps is on the imaging side,” Belle continues. The closer a given camera is, the smaller the terrestrial features it can see sharply. If you’re literally face-to-face with someone, you can see their pores. Back away, and they disappear.
A Hard Row to Hoe
Regardless of whether or not SpaceX’s sats will include cameras—and whether or not they might sell that data and crush some competition with their incomprehensibly large herd of devices—they will be providing the internet. And if they do plan to do both, they aren’t the only ones with the idea: The much smaller Theia Holdings has similar dual-use plans, on the hundred-ish-satellite scale.
But the dual-use hypothesis—while it could make them some money—would also present financial challenges. “A lot of their business now is coming from launching commercial communications satellites,” says Belle, including the likes of Internet.org providers (although in September 2016, SpaceX accidentally exploded one of those, so ¯_(ツ)_/¯). “If they launch their own constellation, they would potentially be competing with their customers.”
It’s nearly impossible for the competition to boycott SpaceX’s rockets entirely, just because there are so few launch providers. But SpaceX’s spot as one of few rocketeers also puts the company itself in a tough position, in its desire to launch (many times) more of its own satellites than currently exist. “SpaceX has, right now, a pretty long backlog,” says Belle. “They have to get through that, and adding in a whole series of launches for their own constellation could be a challenge for them because there’s only so many rockets you can launch in a year.”
SpaceX would also face internal challenges if it moved to the Earth observation world. The company likes to do everything itself, in-house, with its people, its machines, its well-kept secrets. It does now have a satellite-centric office in Redmond, Washington, but this business—the whole satellite thing, not just the maybe-camera part—is new to the company. It hasn’t manufactured or deployed one satellite, ever, let alone 12,000, let alone 12,000 that do both internet and images.
To see if SpaceX does, perhaps, have Earth observation ideations, watch the job listings at the Redmond offices, suggests Belle. The company will need people who can turn those hypothetical pictures into actual insight.
And if SpaceX has never had these ideations? You’re welcome for the idea, Elon.