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SpaceX plans giant satellite antenna to enable cellphone services

Sara Spangelo stripes.jpg

SpaceX is strengthening its programme to introduce satellite-to-cellphones services by stepping up recruitment.

The Elon Musk company, which is building the Starlink network of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, is advertising for mechanical engineers to help develop “the largest deployable antenna array designed at SpaceX to date”.

Sara Spangelo (pictured), who is co-lead of SpaceX’s direct-to-cell project, said on LinkedIn: “SpaceX is developing a breakthrough new direct to cell satellite network to bring ubiquitous cellular connectivity worldwide via the Starlink constellation. We are partnering with telecommunication companies around the world to bring this service directly from satellites to existing cell phones, with the goal of providing coverage anywhere a phone can see the sky.”

SpaceX is possibly the toughest entrant into what is becoming an increasingly busy market to extend mobile phone services by using satellites as well as towers.

Only yesterday a UK company, Bullitt Group, said it was working with Taiwanese chip company MediaTek to build a handset that could link to satellites to send and receive text messages.

But SpaceX’s project is closer to that of AST SpaceMobile, which has orbited a test satellite, BlueWalker 3, with a giant antenna to try out direct communications.

According to Spangelo, the SpaceX unit is “a small collaborative team with ambitious goals”.

Musk and Mike Sievert, CEO of T-Mobile US, majority owned by Deutsche Telekom, said in August that they plan “near complete coverage” of most places in the US – even in remote locations previously unreachable by traditional mobile signals. T-Mobile said “the vast majority of smartphones” already on its network “will be compatible with the new service using the device’s existing radio”.

A giant antenna on the satellite is key to that. The job ad said: “We are seeking experienced and driven mechanical engineers to join us in making this vision a reality and solve a wide range of novel engineering challenges.”

This sounds comparable to the AST SpaceMobile project. Its test satellite has a 64 sq metre array, has solar panels on one side and a precisely targeted set of mobile antennas on the other.