SpaceX eyes Starlink to connect rocket recovery ships to the internet

Regulatory filings show that SpaceX wants to use Starlink to connect its fleet of rocket recovery ships to the internet, potentially kicking off a range of tests that could prove the nascent satellite internet network viable for maritime use.

First reported by CNBC, the news came in the form of a radio service application filed with the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on September 15th. Such filings are routine, at this point, as SpaceX works to dramatically expand the network of fixed ground stations that will serve as network hubs for all Starlink internet services. Done through subsidiaries Space Exploration Holdings LLC and SpaceX Services Inc, SpaceX has filed for more than 500 experimental licenses, Earth station licenses, and Special Temporary Authority (STA; permission to temporary communicate without a dedicated license) in just the last 12 months.

Hundreds of those filings represent licenses for several hundred ground stations in the US alone, with several more dedicated to the increasingly widespread use of user terminals – smaller antennas meant for individual buildings. SpaceX’s September 15th application, however, requests permission to install several user terminals on an active fleet of rocket recovery ships – possibly the company’s first attempt to license Starlink communication with mobile users.

SpaceX may soon connect its large fleet of recovery ships to the Internet with its own Starlink satellite constellation and user terminals. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

For SpaceX itself, flexible and responsive communications services from a low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellation is highly desirable. The company currently relies on off-the-shelf parabolic antennas and traditional geostationary satellite internet providers to connect a fleet of at least seven active ships used to recover Falcon boosters, Falcon fairings, and Dragon spacecraft.

For the broader Starlink business, maritime communications represent a fixed, largely captive market worth at least $1.3 billion annually in 2019, while the industry estimates growth to at least ~$2.4 billion per year by the end of the decade. The massive bandwidth, unprecedentedly low latency, and low costs it aims to offer means that Starlink is exceptionally positioned to disrupt the maritime communications market, much like it could quickly become a huge figure in the in-flight connectivity industry.

Near-term, the addition of Starlink user terminals on SpaceX rocket recovery ships could potentially mean that those ships could broadcast the live views they bring to SpaceX webcasts over SpaceX’s own satellite network. Starlink terminals are likely too large to feasibly fit on Falcon rockets themselves. However, it’s possible that the use of cutting-edge phased-array antennas and the ability to literally tailor Starlink network performance to fit SpaceX’s needs could potentially allow for much higher-quality live footage in SpaceX webcasts, possibly even solving the issue of satellite network connection instability during Falcon booster drone ship landings.

There would be a certain satisfying symmetry if Starlink ensured even better live views of the Falcon booster landings that effectively made the unprecedented satellite constellation possible in the first place.

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Eric Ralph: I write about space, among other things.
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