SpaceX launched two of its own satellites into space on Thursday morning, and if you watched the webcast of the launch, you probably only remember hearing about the primary payload: a Spanish Earth-observation satellite called Paz. While the primary payload is important, it’s the two other satellites that deserve more attention. Unlike the last thing Elon Musk sent up into space, a cherry-red convertible, these two satellites, called Microsat-2a and Microsat-2b (nicknamed Tintin A and Tintin B, respectively) are a pretty critical part of the company’s next venture: to beam the internet from orbit back down to Earth.
Tintin A and B are prototype instruments built by SpaceX to test out technologies that would provide internet access to people down on the surface. The company is moving forward with plans to create a giant internet service called Starlink, comprised of 12,000 satellites organized high in two different altitudes (200 miles and 700 miles above the surface of the planet), operating at different radio frequencies, to cover individuals nearly anywhere on Earth.
It’s a massive, ambitious plan, but also a lucrative one if SpaceX can pull it off. The Wall Street Journal reports the company plans to have more than 40 million subscribers by 2025, which at the point should be enough to generate some $30 billion in revenue.
Why send internet down from space at all? It could be a great equalizer: Broad swaths of the world are still hampered by poor access to broadband internet. If you’re living in a town comprised of just a few dozen people hundreds of miles from the city, or you live in a developing part of the world that hasn’t been graced by a telecom giant, you probably have bad internet, if you have access to the web at all. Satellite internet can solve that problem, beaming connectivity down to even the most remote places on the planet.
The Federal Communications Commission seems to be on board as well. FCC Chairman (and noted adversary of both net neutrality and comedy) Ajit Pai endorses SpaceX’s broadband network plans, and is encouraging the FCC to approve the company’s applications to access part of the radio spectrum.
But the FCC approval process isn’t the only obstacle SpaceX needs to get around. There’s also just the fact that coordinating the movements of 12,000 satellites requires a huge amount of work. SpaceX is more than familiar with the launch business, but deploying, maneuvering, and operating 12,000 satellites in orbit is a whole different task.
Starlink might seem like a strange side-project for a company trying to get to Mars, but the network would be a pretty useful source of revenue for the company. SpaceX has managed to shrink its launch costs lower than its competitors, but space is still an expensive endeavor.
One thing’s for sure: Musk has not lost his edge when it comes to advertising his technology.