Two Tiny Satellites Will Kickstart SpaceX’s Satellite Internet Project This Weekend

SpaceX night launch

This Saturday morning, a SpaceX Falcon 9 will take off from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base. It’s main mission? To deliver a 3,000-pound radar observation satellite called Paz for the Spanish government. That’s the payload paying the bills. But it’s two tiny satellites tucked in along with Paz that could pave the way for low-cost internet around the world.

The two microsats (Microsat-2a and Microsat-2b) measure just 43 inches by 28 inches by 28 inches. Each weighs 880 pounds and will be powered by a pair of solar panels measuring 26 feet long. Saturday’s Falcon 9 will deliver each microsat to an altitude of 700 miles above Earth. The first two prototypes in a project dubbed Starlink.

Once there, SpaceX will start testing the systems aboard each one including the broadband antenna. Tests of the Ku-band radio communication system will happen once every day or so, with each test lasting less than 15 minutes.

SpaceX explains the testing in a government application:

“Ground passes are limited to a minimum of 40 degree elevation angles at each location for testing; thus, the spacecraft will only transmit at elevation angles of 40 to 90 degrees. This elevation angle constraint, combined with the geography of the ground stations, results in the aforementioned transmission times of less than 15 minutes every 0.9 days.”

The FCC is onboard with SpaceX’s (and others) ambitious satellite internet project. From FCC chairman Ajit Pai:

“To bridge America’s digital divide, we’ll have to use innovative technologies. SpaceX’s application—along with those of other satellite companies seeking licenses or access to the U.S. market for non-geostationary satellite orbit systems—involves one such innovation,” stated FCC chairman Ajit Pai in a statement. “Satellite technology can help reach Americans who live in rural or hard-to-serve places where fiber optic cables and cell towers do not reach. And it can offer more competition where terrestrial internet access is already available.”

As for a first-stage landing? I can’t find concrete confirmation, but NASASpaceFlight reports the core “has been observed without landing legs.” An ocean landing might be in the cards, but it looks like this booster’s second trip to space (it launched the Formosat 5 satellite before) will be its last.

If Saturday’s mission nails its planned launch time of 6:17 am PDT, folks on the California coast could be in for another impressive light show like the one they saw in late December. Launch will be 30 minutes before sunrise.

Tune in to SpaceX’s live webcast on Saturday to catch all the action as it happens. And if you live along the coast near Vandenberg, head outside. I know it’s a Saturday morning, but it’ll be worth it.