New photos appear to show Elon Musk's 'UFO on a stick' device that will connect users to SpaceX's fleet of Starlink internet satellites
A Reddit user appears to have posted the first unambiguous photos of ground devices that connect to SpaceX's fleet of internet-beaming Starlink satellites. The person said they drove by the SpaceX site near Merrillan, Wisconsin, and used a large telephoto lens to photograph the antennas. The devices closely match prior descriptions of them by Elon Musk, SpaceX's founder and CEO. A label on the antennas also describes them as prototypes and property of SpaceX. Although Musk said Starlink could net SpaceX tens of billions of dollars per year, he noted in May that bringing down the cost of subscriber antennas, called user terminals, may be the project's biggest hurdle. Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
A SpaceX fan who lives near Merrillan, Wisconsin, has apparently seen the aerospace company's future on a rural gravel lot across the road from rows of grain corn. The photos, posted Saturday by Reddit user darkpenguin22, may be the first unequivocal images of ground antennas described by SpaceX in federal filings for Starlink: a growing fleet of internet-beaming satellites that may orbit Earth by the tens of thousands before the end of the decade. If Starlink pans out as described by Elon Musk, the aerospace company's founder, the project may one day net SpaceX tens of billions of dollars per year by permitting people to get online with high-speed, low-lag internet from almost anywhere on the planet. While SpaceX has posted plenty of photos and videos of its roughly 570-pound, desk-size satellites, the company has yet to reveal any of its Starlink ground-segment hardware. SpaceX ignored Business Insider's request for comment on the images and their contents. However, the pictures appear to show authentic prototypes capable of talking to overflying Starlink satellites, the site matches satellite imagery for a SpaceX testing location in an April 29 notice by the Federal Communications Commission, and a magnified view of the label on the devices says the units are prototypes and SpaceX property. The pictures, republished here with permission, show two flavors of apparent Starlink antennas: a roughly five-foot-diameter bulbous white radome, which protects ground-station electronics inside, and a much smaller and sleeker user terminal.
"I just happen to live nearby so going there to take some pictures myself was an easy way to contribute to the community," darkpenguin22, who requested anonymity to maintain their privacy, told Business Insider in a message. "I'm a long time SpaceX and Tesla fan and work in IT as a sysadmin, so have been closely following Starlink developments for both personal and professional/business purposes." The person added: "Could potentially become a very competitive alternative for corporate site-to-site links, at least in less population dense parts of the country/world. I also see it as key to enabling efficient remote working for those of us who prefer a more rural lifestyle." A 'UFO on a stick' revealed
In its earliest phase, SpaceX plans to launch nearly 1,600 Starlink satellites to an altitude of about 340 miles above Earth. To that end, the company has rocketed about 480 operational satellites into space — though it is attempting to send up a new batch of about 60 satellites every two weeks. Gwynne Shotwell, the president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, told Irene Klotz of Aviation Week in May that the company would "roll out service in a more public way" after launching more than 800 spacecraft. The first phase of satellites will orbit about 64 times closer than a typical internet-beaming satellite, thus they could (in theory) be capable of providing near-lagless internet. If SpaceX can prove its case to the FCC, the company may qualify for billions in federal subsidies geared toward providing areas with low-quality or nonexistent broadband service. Key to that effort, however, are the devices companies and people will use to upload and download data to and from Starlink. The larger ground stations would be used in key locations to help shuttle internet traffic to and from the Starlink network. Meanwhile, Starlink beta testers and later individual subscribers would use the medium-pizza-size terminals to log on to the network. Elon Musk in 2015 said the user terminals would be roughly the size of a medium pizza. Earlier this year, Musk further described a user terminal as "a thin, flat, round UFO on a stick" that would use motors to self-adjust to an "optimal angle to view [the] sky" and talk to SpaceX's fleet of orbiting Starlink satellites. All that's required to set them up, the CEO said, is to plug them in and point them at the sky. ("These instructions work in either order. No training required," he tweeted on January 7.) The images of the satellite dishes shared on Reddit clearly fit the description. A zoomed-in part of one photo (not shown) also shows a label with a serial number and a notice that says: Property of SpaceXPrototype — Not for sale or leaseThis unit is intended for demonstrations [sic] use only. This device has not been authorized as required by the rules of the Federal Communications Commission. This device is not, and may not be, offered for sale or lease, or sold or leased, until authorization is obtained. Therefore, ownership must remain with SpaceX. The size of the device also aligns with SpaceX patents for a phased-array antenna system that's ostensibly inside each user terminal.
The phased-array components, designed to rapidly track and communicate with in-view satellites, are necessary for Starlink because the spacecraft move overhead so quickly. Bowl-shaped dishes that don't move and point to one part of the sky, like those used to aim at a traditional TV or internet satellite, wouldn't suffice for keeping an uninterrupted connection; a platter of phase shifters, however, can work together to electronically and almost instantly steer a transmission beam from one satellite to another. SpaceX in February 2018 filed US and world patents for a "distributed phase shifter array system and method." The US version is pending, and the world version is still under review, so neither the US Patent Office nor World Intellectual Property Organization has yet granted SpaceX a patent. But Starlink has a long road to profitability
Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, is looking to Starlink as a colossal revenue stream to help fund SpaceX's planned conquest of Mars. The company is authorized to launch nearly 12,000 of the satellites, though it's seeking to launch a total of about 42,000. "For the system to be economically viable, it's really on the order of 1,000 satellites," Musk told Business Insider of Starlink during a press call on May 15, 2019. "If we're putting a lot more satellites than that in orbit, that's actually a very good thing. It means there's a lot of demand for the system." But while Starlink may complete beta tests of the system and start transitioning to public service before the end of 2020, turning the project into a moneymaker could take much longer. As Musk told Aviation Week in May, bringing down the cost of devices called user terminals — which would connect subscribers to orbiting Starlink satellites — remains a major hurdle. Currently, phased-array antenna components cost about $1,500, though Musk wants to sell customers a "UFO on a stick" for about $200 to $300. "I think the biggest challenge will be with the user terminal and getting the user terminal cost to be ... affordable," he told Aviation Week. "That will take us a few years to really solve." The seeming conflict between public service rollout before 2021, yet affordable user terminals around 2023, suggests the cost of the devices may at first be significantly subsidized by SpaceX to allow the company to build a customer base for the network. Do you have a story or inside information to share about the spaceflight industry? Send Dave Mosher an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or a Twitter direct message at @davemosher. More secure communication options are listed here.SEE ALSO: How Elon Musk's 'UFO on a stick' devices may turn SpaceX internet subscribers into the Starlink satellite network's secret weapon DON'T MISS: Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have profound visions for humanity's future in space. Here's how the billionaires' goals compare. Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Why NASA waited nearly a decade to send astronauts into space from the US
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churning out Starlink satellites at a rate of 120/month
SpaceX's rocket launch of 58 Starlink internet satellites on Saturday left behind a jaw-dropping, rainbow-colored cloud in the Florida sky
SpaceX launched dozens new internet-providing Starlink satellites on Saturday morning along with a few of Planet...SpaceX launched dozens new internet-providing Starlink satellites on Saturday morning along with a few of Planet Labs' imaging spacecraft. The Falcon 9 rocket carrying the mission to orbit lifted off just before dawn from Cape Canaveral, Florida. This caused the rocket's expanding plume of exhaust fumes to catch beams of morning sunlight, creating an enormous and spectacular multi-colored glowing cloud. People as far as Alabama saw the blue-hued cloud with a rainbow of colors in it and took photos and video of the phenomenon. Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories. The best time to see a rocket launch is amid the twilight of dusk or dawn, when darkness blankets the ground but sunlight still shines high in the sky. In such moments, billowing plumes of rocket-engine exhaust high above Earth can catch the sun and create spectacular glowing clouds. On Saturday morning at 5:21 a.m. ET, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying 58 internet-beaming Starlink satellites to space along with three of Planet Labs' new high-resolution SkySat Earth-observing spacecraft. The Starlink-8 mission, as it's called, was SpaceX's eighth batch of its latest Starlink satellites after two earlier experimental launches, and it marks the company's 540th such satellite delivered to orbit. It's also one of three Starlink missions the company hopes to fly in less than three weeks to work toward providing global internet service before the end of 2020. (That is, if the SpaceX can figure out an affordable means of connecting users to its network, as founder Elon Musk recently intimated.) As the rocket ascended from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and over the Atlantic Ocean, it created the glowing-cloud phenomenon, and people from multiple states were around to document it in photos and videos to breathtaking effect. "An epic display on Florida's Space Coast this morning!" photographer John Pisani tweeted shortly after the launch, sharing two stunning long-exposure photos he took of the rocket ascending to orbit. An epic display on Florida’s Space Coast this morning! @SpaceX #falcon9 #starlink @planetlabs @elonmusk pic.twitter.com/INn4qGDY4N — johnpisani (@johnpisaniphoto) June 13, 2020 John Kraus, a spaceflight photographer, recorded a time-lapse movie of the entire launch for SuperCluster and uploaded it to Twitter. The clip compresses about eight minutes of the launch into 15 seconds: Time lapse of this morning’s stunning pre-dawn Falcon 9 launch from Cape Canaveral.🎥: Me for @SuperclusterHQ pic.twitter.com/ZWhmsxL5lC — John Kraus 🚀 (@johnkrausphotos) June 13, 2020 SuperCluster, a space media company, tweeted one of Kraus' still photos, and it shows how the expanding exhaust plume glowed in a rainbow of colors in the predawn twilight. A luminous sight over Cape Canaveral as #SpaceX successfully launches 58 Starlink satellites and three of @planetlabs's SkySats to orbit on a reusable Falcon 9 rocket📷: @johnkrausphotos for Supercluster pic.twitter.com/jLpssRhXcH — Supercluster (@SuperclusterHQ) June 13, 2020 Jamie Groh, a teacher and part-time reporter for Teslarati.com, also shared a photo of the predawn launch — but one she took from 140 miles away from the rocket's launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. "I'm fairly certain all of my neighbors were wondering why there was a crazy lady outside screaming at 5am," Groh said in her post. WOAH! A #SpaceX #Starlink launch into astronomical twilight is the absolute BEST WAY to start your day. I'm fairly certain all of my neighbors were wondering why there was a crazy lady outside screaming at 5am.Uhhh #LookUpSpaceX #Falcon9 & 2nd stage MVAC from 140mi downrange! pic.twitter.com/P1ryWiVjZD — Jamie Groh (@AlteredJamie) June 13, 2020 The launch plume was so bright and large that it could be seen as far as Daleville, Alabama, wrote Twitter user Chance Belloise. High-altitude winds eventually blew around the expanding exhaust trail into a winding cloud, creating a snake-like pattern in the sky, as shown in an image tweeted by photographer Greg Diesel Walck. Noctilucent cloud from @SpaceX launch this morning seen across Florida at Ft Myers. @SPACEdotcom @tariqjmalik #spacex #nasa #florida pic.twitter.com/PDHcVc6VWL — Greg Diesel Walck (@GregDieselPhoto) June 13, 2020 Starlink-8 is not the first time SpaceX's rocket launches, which are now the most frequent of any US-based aerospace company, has produced such a widely celebrated light show. After SpaceX's June 2018 launch of a Cargo Dragon resupply spaceship to the International Space Station, its rocket-launch plume similarly grabbed high-altitude light to create an amazing glowing "dragon's tail." And on December 22, 2017, SpaceX's liftoff of 10 Iridium NEXT satellites created over coastal California what is arguably the rocket company's most beautiful launch scene. Why rocket exhaust plumes can look so beautiful When rockets launch, they leave behind a trail of hot exhaust, also called a plume. The appearance of the plume depends on the fuel, in SpaceX's case it's RP-1 — a high-grade kerosene — burned by liquid oxygen. Falcon 9 rockets can send payloads more than 250 miles above Earth, beyond the edge of space and where the space station orbits our planet. At first, a rocket leaves behind a relatively thin plume. But as it climbs higher and higher toward space, the air pressure gets lower and lower. About a dozen miles up, the air pressure is less than 1% of that at Earth's surface, causing hot launch plumes to dramatically expand. If atmospheric conditions are right, these billowing plumes can make water condense out of the air, which then freezes into tiny ice crystals. And if the timing is right, these crystals can reflect the sun's light from far over the horizon like a mirror, beaming it down to a dark, pre-dawn or post-sunset location (at least until high-altitude winds blow around the plume and ice). The phenomenon is known to scientists as noctilucent or "night-shining" clouds, which form naturally and most frequently over the Arctic and Antarctic. For a visual walkthrough of why twilight rocket launches look so stunning, watch the video below by Scott Manley, an astrophysicist and popular YouTuber, who uses SpaceX's December 2017 mission as an example. SEE ALSO: An incredible new SpaceX video shows what it's like to be inside the nose cone of a Falcon 9 rocket launching Starlink internet satellites into orbit DON'T MISS: Elon Musk says the biggest challenge of SpaceX's Starlink internet project is not satellites, but rather 'UFO on a stick' devices users will need to get online Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Why Pikes Peak is the most dangerous racetrack in America