A Starlink terminal has been seen mounted to SpaceX’s latest Starship prototype, SN15, by a sharp-eyed observer. A space enthusiast named Carter Goode reported seeing the terminal about 2/3 of the way up the prototype.
SpaceX has also applied for temporary permission to operate the terminal at altitudes up to 12.5 kilometers, likely so that the terminal can be used to upload and download telemetry data as part of its planned high altitude testing of the prototype.
(Don’t count on being able to intercept that telemetry with amateur radio equipment or devices with Wi-Fi compatibility, though. SpaceX recently decided to encrypt telemetry data for all of its rockets due to possible security concerns.)
The sighting may cause people to wonder if Wi-Fi will be available to passengers when Starship eventually becomes capable of reliably carrying them to destinations throughout the inner solar system. Starlink beta testers who actually read the terms of service previously spotted one clause that recognized Mars as a free planet, so the eventual use of Wi-Fi functionality elsewhere in the solar system may be a possibility.
Don’t count on fast upload and download speeds between planets, though. Even with NASA’s Deep Space Network, it can take hours to get a response from some of the most distant robotic probes. It’s very possible that any future Martian settlements will eventually develop its own social media networks to account for the fact that Facebook and Twitter would not function very well in an interplanetary environment.
The use of Wi-Fi in Starship flights from point to point on Earth, as well as flights between Earth and the Moon, may be more feasible with the laws of physics only dictating a latency time of up to three seconds for data transmissions between Earth and the Moon. When combined with SpaceX’s current plans plans to mount terminals on large vehicles such as airplanes, which may imply that it already sees a market for complimentary Wi-Fi for what would amount to a “premium” flight service from point to point on Earth. (Marketing professionals may be intrigued by the prospect of creating new materials for such a service. From anywhere to anywhere on Earth in 90 minutes or less!)
Elon Musk has indicated that using Starlink to fund potential settlements on Mars by the 2050s may be a possibility, even though SpaceX is currently selling the equipment needed to access it at a loss. Beta testers got their equipment for $499 and SpaceX manufactures them for $1,500 apiece.
He has also said on Twitter that he would like to devote half his personal fortune to make humans an interplanetary species by creating a self-sustaining Martian settlement. Musk also indicated in a recent disagreement with Bernie Sanders that, unlike Jeff Bezos or Walmart’s Walton family, he is not accumulating wealth purely for the sake of accumulating wealth.
Of course, SpaceX still has to work out the kinks in the Starship prototypes first. It has lost four prototypes in high-altitude tests in recent months, which has attracted unwelcome attention from the FAA and even caused Congress to make noise about a possible congressional investigation. Elon Musk has indicated that engineers have pinned down the problem that caused the loss of SN11, though.
In the meantime, Starlink is meant to help close the “digital divide” in which some segments of the human population do not have reliable access to high-speed Internet service. SpaceX personnel recently indicated that the company will consider low-cost plans for people who can’t afford the $499 for equipment and $99 a month access fee. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell has indicated that the company does not plan to have tiered pricing based on Internet speeds.
Starlink has also provided early access to Washington State’s Native American Hoh Tribe and also worked out a deal with a school district in Texas to provide access for low-income students. It is also in talks with the UK government to join “Project Gigabit,” which plans to bring better Internet access to rural areas.
SpaceX currently has more than 1,400 Starlink satellites in orbit with plans to ramp up manufacturing of the satellites with a new factory in Austin and provide global coverage by the end of 2021. The addition of a terminal to SN15 may be a test to see if its terminals will hold up to a space launch as easily as they hold up to harsh weather conditions.