In the high-stakes world of space exploration, every second counts, and every bit of data matters. For SpaceX, the pioneer company in reusable rocket technology, ensuring seamless communication and data transfer from their ocean-based recovery fleet has been a constant challenge – until now.
In recent times, space enthusiasts may have noticed that during Falcon 9 Booster landings on the Droneships in the middle of the ocean, the live video feed is much more stable than before.
In a recent update from SpaceX, the company revealed some details on how this has been made possible: TL;DR — Starlink.
Transforming maritime connectivity
The company revealed that traditionally, as often speculated, SpaceX’s maritime operations relied on cumbersome and costly geostationary satellite internet service (VSAT), plagued by high latency, limited bandwidth, and unreliable connections.
“The [VSAT] systems were also challenging to install and required frequent maintenance,” said the company, “at over $165k per month for 25 Mb/s download by 25 Mb/s upload of pre-paid bandwidth, satellite internet was one of the top operating costs for SpaceX’s recovery fleet.”
Moreover, SpaceX underlined that due to the vehicle’s ability to generate hundreds of gigabytes of data, it frequently incurred expensive additional charges.
Enter Starlink, SpaceX’s very own LEO satellite internet constellation. Under an experimental license, SpaceX deployed Starlink’s maritime terminals to their recovery fleet, with astonishing results. The improvements were nothing short of revolutionary:
- 5900% increase in download throughput
- 700% increase in upload throughput
- 95% reduction in latency
With upload speeds reaching up to 40Mb/s per installation and latency reduced to a mere 50ms, Starlink has enabled SpaceX to transfer hundreds of gigabytes of critical data within hours of a rocket’s landing – a feat previously unimaginable with the VSAT system.
This change not only enhances operational efficiency but also strengthens safety protocols, says SpaceX, by providing real-time telemetry, CCTV feeds, and navigation data from the remote-operated Droneships that retrieve the rocket’s first stage.
Additionally, with a fixed rate of $5,000 per vessel per month, the company will experience an almost 70% decrease in monthly internet expenses for the fleet upon integrating Starlink.
So what for the livestream?
Starlink’s benefits don’t stop there. The robust connection stability has ensured continuous live video coverage during rocket landings, even in the face of intense vibrations and adverse weather conditions.
This means clearer, more reliable video feeds for SpaceX’s ground control teams and space enthusiasts worldwide. Previously, using VSAT, the combination of limited bandwidth and the intense vibrations from rocket engines frequently resulted in complete interruptions in video and data transmission.
The change is clearly visible when comparing past landings to current ones, and it’s quite impressive. Of course, it’s not all straightforward: in addition to adopting Starlink, the company has worked diligently on various system improvements, that still remain rather secretive.
The team responsible for the livestream is called VADER, an acronym for Video/Audio Design & Engineering Resources. As the name suggests, they handle much more than just livestreams. Skillfully led by an engineer with over 12 years of experience at SpaceX, the VADER Team has found the secret sauce that has overcome the vibrations and force produced by the Booster during landing.
Improving Crew Well-Being
Moreover, as SpaceX’s launch cadence continues to accelerate, the extended time spent by recovery teams at sea poses additional challenges. Starlink has proven invaluable in maintaining reliable communication links, even in the midst of thunderstorms and thick cloud cover. This not only reduces crew isolation but also allows members to stay connected with their families through video calls and enjoy recreational activities during downtime.
In essence, Starlink has not only revolutionized SpaceX’s maritime operations but has set a new standard for affordable, low-latency satellite internet connectivity in the maritime industry.
The company’s decision to invest in their own satellite internet constellation has not only paid off in terms of cost savings but has also elevated the standards of connectivity and data transfer in the aerospace industry.