New photos appear to show Elon Musk's 'UFO on a stick' device that will connect users to SpaceX's fleet of Starlink internet satellites

An array of user terminals (bottom left) and ground stations (right) that SpaceX may be using to test its fleet of internet-beaming Starlink satellites.Courtesy of darkpenguin22 (via Reddit)
  • A Reddit user appears to have posted the first unambiguous photos of ground devices that connect to SpaceX's fleet of internet-beaming Starlink satellites.
  • The person said they drove by the SpaceX site near Merrillan, Wisconsin, and used a large telephoto lens to photograph the antennas.
  • The devices closely match prior descriptions of them by Elon Musk, SpaceX's founder and CEO. A label on the antennas also describes the hardware as prototypes and property of SpaceX.
  • Although Musk has said Starlink could eventually net SpaceX tens of billions of dollars per year, he recently noted that bringing down the cost of subscriber antennas, called user terminals, may be the project's biggest hurdle.

A SpaceX fan who lives near Merrillan, Wisconsin, has apparently seen the aerospace company's future on a rural gravel lot across the road from rows of grain corn.

The photos, posted Saturday by Reddit user darkpenguin22, may be the clearest and most unequivocal images yet of ground antennas described by SpaceX in federal filings for Starlink: a growing fleet of internet-beaming satellites that may orbit Earth by the tens of thousands before the end of the decade.

If Starlink pans out as described by SpaceX founder Elon Musk, the aerospace company may net tens of billions of dollars per year by getting people online with high-speed, low-lag internet from almost anywhere on the planet's surface.Advertisement

While SpaceX has posted plenty of photos and videos of its roughly 570-pound, desk-size satellites, the company has yet to reveal any of its Starlink ground-segment hardware.

SpaceX ignored Business Insider's request for comment on the images and their contents. However, the pictures appear to show authentic prototypes capable of talking to overflying Starlink satellites. The site also matches satellite imagery for a SpaceX testing location in an April 29 notice by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and a magnified view of the label on the devices says the units are prototypes and SpaceX property.

The pictures, republished here with permission, were taken with a high-power telephoto lens from afar. They show two flavors of apparent Starlink antennas: a roughly five-foot-diameter bulbous white radome, which protects ground-station electronics inside, and a much smaller and sleeker user terminal Musk has described as a "UFO on a stick."
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A user terminal that SpaceX may be using to test internet connections with its fleet of Starlink satellites.Courtesy of darkpenguin22 (via Reddit)

There have been previous sightings of apparent Starlink prototype ground equipment, such as in Boca Chica, Texas (where SpaceX is developing its new Starship launch system), but the new images most clearly show the hardware. "I just happen to live nearby so going there to take some pictures myself was an easy way to contribute to the community," darkpenguin22, who requested anonymity to maintain their privacy, told Business Insider in a message. "I'm a long time SpaceX and Tesla fan and work in IT as a sysadmin, so have been closely following Starlink developments for both personal and professional/business purposes."Advertisement

The person added: "Could potentially become a very competitive alternative for corporate site-to-site links, at least in less population dense parts of the country/world. I also see it as key to enabling efficient remote working for those of us who prefer a more rural lifestyle."

A 'UFO on a stick' revealed

A user terminal that SpaceX may be using to test internet connections with its fleet of Starlink satellites.Courtesy of darkpenguin22 (via Reddit)

In its earliest phase, SpaceX plans to launch nearly 1,600 Starlink satellites to an altitude of about 340 miles above Earth. To that end, the company has rocketed 62 experimental and 480 operational satellites into space — though it is attempting to send up a new batch of about 60 satellites roughly every two weeks.Advertisement

Gwynne Shotwell, the president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, told Irene Klotz of Aviation Week in May that the company would "roll out service in a more public way" after launching more than 800 spacecraft, which the company is on track to achieve by the fall.

The first phase of satellites will orbit about 64 times closer than a typical internet-beaming satellite, thus they could (in theory) be capable of providing near-lagless internet. If SpaceX can prove its case to the FCC, the company may qualify for billions in federal subsidies geared toward providing areas with low-quality or nonexistent broadband service.

Key to that effort, however, are the devices companies and people will use to upload and download data to and from Starlink.Advertisement

The larger ground stations would be used in key locations to help shuttle internet traffic to and from the Starlink network. Meanwhile, Starlink beta testers and later individual subscribers would use the smaller terminals to log on to the network.

Elon Musk in 2015 said the user terminals would be roughly the size of a medium pizza. Earlier this year, Musk further described a user terminal as "a thin, flat, round UFO on a stick" that would use motors to self-adjust to an "optimal angle to view [the] sky" and talk to SpaceX's fleet of orbiting Starlink satellites.

All that's required to set them up, the CEO said, is to plug them in and point them at the sky. ("These instructions work in either order. No training required," he tweeted on January 7.)Advertisement

The images of the satellite dishes shared on Reddit clearly fit the description. A zoomed-in part of one photo (not shown) also shows a label with a serial number and a notice that says:

Property of SpaceX
Prototype — Not for sale or lease
This unit is intended for demonstrations [sic] use only. This device has not been authorized as required by the rules of the Federal Communications Commission. This device is not, and may not be, offered for sale or lease, or sold or leased, until authorization is obtained. Therefore, ownership must remain with SpaceX.
The size of the device also aligns with SpaceX patents for a phased-array antenna component that's ostensibly inside each user terminal.Advertisement

A patent application filed by SpaceX for a phased-array antenna component that would ostensibly help Starlink internet subscribers connect to the rocket company's satellite network. Fig. 1D shows the top of the proposed antenna, Fig. 1E shows the layers of the device from the side, and Fig. 1G shows a 3D exploded diagram of the various layers.Google Patents; Business Insider

The phased array, designed to rapidly track and communicate with in-view satellites, is practically necessary for Starlink because the spacecraft move overhead so quickly. Bowl-shaped dishes that don't move and point to one part of the sky, like those used to aim at a traditional TV or internet satellite, wouldn't suffice for keeping an uninterrupted connection; a platter of phase shifters, however, can work together to electronically and almost instantly steer a transmission beam from one satellite to another.

SpaceX in February 2018 filed US and world patents for a "distributed phase shifter array system and method." The US version is pending, and the world version is still under review, so neither the US Patent Office nor World Intellectual Property Organization has yet granted SpaceX a patent.Advertisement

But Starlink has a long road to profitability

A computer scientist's rendering of SpaceX's constellation of satellites for Starlink: a scheme to provide global, high-speed, low-latency internet service.Mark Handley/University College London

Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, is looking to Starlink as a colossal revenue stream to help fund SpaceX's planned conquest of Mars. The company is authorized to launch nearly 12,000 of the satellites, though it's seeking to launch a total of about 42,000.

"For the system to be economically viable, it's really on the order of 1,000 satellites," Musk told Business Insider of Starlink during a press call on May 15, 2019. "If we're putting a lot more satellites than that in orbit, that's actually a very good thing. It means there's a lot of demand for the system."Advertisement

But while Starlink may complete beta tests of the system and start transitioning to public service before the end of 2020, turning the project into a moneymaker could take much longer.

As Musk told Aviation Week in May, bringing down the cost of devices called user terminals — which would connect subscribers to orbiting Starlink satellites — remains a major hurdle. Currently, phased-array antenna components cost about $1,500, though Musk wants to sell customers a "UFO on a stick" for about $200 to $300.

"I think the biggest challenge will be with the user terminal and getting the user terminal cost to be ... affordable," he told Aviation Week. "That will take us a few years to really solve."Advertisement

The seeming conflict between public service rollout before 2021, yet affordable user terminals around 2023, suggests the cost of the devices may at first be significantly subsidized by SpaceX to allow the company to build a customer base for the network.

Do you have a story or inside information to share about the spaceflight industry? Send Dave Mosher an email at dmosher+tips@businessinsider.com or a Twitter direct message at @davemosher. More secure communication options are listed here.
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