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Hughes' Bus-Sized Satellite Promises Better Broadband in the Boonies

SpaceX is set to launch the boxy, bus-sized, 10-ton spacecraft high into geostationary orbit.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
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An artist's rendering of Hughes' Jupiter 3 satellite, a silvery box with four large circular antenna reflectors and two very large solar panel arrays unfolded from either side.

Hughes' Jupiter 3 satellite is the size of a school bus and when it unfolds its solar panels will be well over 100 feet across.

Hughes Network Systems

Broadband remains a challenge in rural areas beyond the reach of mainstream internet service providers' fiber and cable. But a hulking SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket is about to hurtle a bus-sized satellite from aerospace firm Hughes into orbit to bring 100 megabit per second speeds to people who can't connect to more ordinary networks.

Hughes has provided satellite-based internet access for years with its Jupiter 1 and Jupiter 2 satellites, each in geostationary orbit 22,236 miles above Earth's equator. But their data transfer speeds have been capped at 25Mbps for downloads and 3Mbps for uploads. Jupiter 3, scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral in the second quarter, will let Hughes offer plans with 50Mbps and 100Mbps speeds to customers in North America later this year, said Mark Wymer, a Hughes Network Systems senior vice president.

The company this month offered its first look at Jupiter 3. The 10-ton, 28-foot long spacecraft is perched upright at an assembly and test site in Palo Alto, California. Its elongated boxy frame sports booms for antenna equipment, big circular reflectors that bounce radio waves toward Earth and a folded set of solar panels. It's partly mirrored to keep it cool under the sun's intense infrared light.

Locating local internet providers

Jupiter 3 is emblematic of the importance of space in satisfying our need for data. Broadband is most easily delivered in areas with high population density, but for the millions of people who live elsewhere, satellites are an increasingly viable technology to get to the net. Many of the best internet providers in the US simply don't reach far enough beyond the suburbs.

Jupiter 3 rests a few feet away from a huge blue vacuum chamber where it had to pass thermal tests showing it'll work with no air to help cool it. Just in front of the chamber is a platform to put the satellite through shake tests to ensure it'll endure the harshness of a rocket launch. After a final function check, it'll be ready to head into orbit and link up with HughesNet subscribers.

Locating local internet providers

"We'll be able to add hundreds of thousands of additional subscribers," Wymer said. HughesNet, the Echostar subsidiary's satellite broadband service, has more than a million subscribers today.

Broadband has become critical to modern living, and satellites play an important role getting it to those beyond the reach of copper cables or fiber optic lines, across what's known as the digital divide. 

One big satellite, not lots of small ones

A lot of broadband satellite activity today focuses on "constellations" of spacecraft orbiting relatively close in low Earth orbit, or LEO. That's where hundreds of satellites from Amazon's Kuiper, OneWeb and SpaceX's Starlink orbit, not to mention the International Space Station and many other spacecraft. Jupiter 3, though, will park much higher in geostationary orbit, also called geosynchronous equatorial orbit.

Plenty of altitudes are available for LEO satellites a few hundred miles above the Earth, but GEO is one specific distance where satellites orbit exactly once for each revolution of the planet. In that prime real estate in space, satellites stay in a fixed point in the sky as viewed from the surface of the Earth. Each GEO parking space requires hard-to-obtain regulatory approval, and Jupiter is replacing an older communications satellite to get its spot.

Hughes' 28-foot-long Jupiter 3 satellite in its compact configuration with circular antenna reflectors and rectangular solar panels folded in for launch

Hughes' 28-foot-long Jupiter 3 satellite is shown here in its compact configuration with circular antenna reflectors and rectangular solar panels folded in for launch atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.

Hughes Network Systems

The high geostationary orbit means Jupiter 3 can reach the entire Western Hemisphere of the Earth. With so few spots in geostationary orbit, satellites there tend to be big and powerful.

"Jupiter 3 will be the largest satellite we've ever built," said Dave Pidgeon, vice president of commercial programs at Maxar Technologies, which designed and is manufacturing the spacecraft at its offices in Palo Alto.

This satellite is bulky but compact, with solar panels and antenna components folded to its side to be squeezed onto the rocket. Once in orbit, it'll unfold those panels so it's more than 100 feet across. Booms will extend to position circular antenna reflectors that will beam radio signals to and from the company's ground stations.

The spacecraft is a high-tech construction that pushes the limits of radio communications. But it's also something of a retro design, given plans for constellations consisting of lots of relatively cheap, low-altitude satellites.

Hughes contracted with SpaceX to carry Jupiter 3 to orbit on its Falcon Heavy, a rocket design that's launched five times so far.

Narrowing the digital divide

Satellites don't help so much with one part of the digital divide: getting low-income households affordable internet access. But they can reach rural areas where internet service providers don't find it economical to build long but lightly used stretches of network.

That's more and more important as the world goes online. The COVID pandemic increased telecommuting, and students need internet access, too.

Jupiter 3 should help. It's a big upgrade from the Jupiter 1, launched in 2012, and Jupiter 2 from 2017. It has a total data transfer capacity of 500 gigabits per second, up from 120Gbps for Jupiter 1 and 200Gpbs for Jupiter 2, said Adrian Morris, executive vice president of engineering at Hughes Network Systems. That includes both the data transfer to and from the thousands of consumer dish antennas, called Vsats, and the much larger gateway antennas that connect the satellite communications to the internet.

Consumers can expect 50Mbps or 100Mbps options thanks to Jupiter 3. They'll also increase upload speeds from today's 3Mbps to 5Mbps. Current plans cost $65 per month with 15 gigabytes of data, $75 with 30 gigabytes, or $149 with 200 gigabytes of data.

Jupiter 3 also will offer internet services to jets in flight and boats on the sea. And it'll link up cell towers in areas that don't otherwise have enough "backhaul" — the connections base stations need to the rest of carriers' networks.

As politicians try to narrow the digital divide, Hughes expects to cash in. The company is in discussions with several states about federally funded programs designed to help.

"States ... have got a windfall of money from the feds, and now they're looking to deploy it,"  Wymer said. "They want to make sure everybody in their state is covered."

Correction, 2:40 p.m. PT: This story misstated the price of a new HughesNet service. The monthly plan with 200 gigabytes of data transfer uses current 25Mbps speeds and costs $149 a month. The story has also been updated to reflect that Maxar designed the Jupiter 3 satellite to meet Hughes' requirements.