- SpaceX has launched hundreds of internet-beaming Starlink satellites into orbit since 2019.
- On Tuesday, a college student tweeted official SpaceX photos of user terminals, or satellite dishes to connect subscribers to the web. The photos were first discovered by a Reddit community that follows Starlink.
- SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk, who’s described the terminals as looking like a “UFO on a stick,” confirmed their authenticity as SpaceX works to start a private beta test of the internet service this summer.
- Business Insider reviewed Starlink’s website’s public source code and found what looks like numerous details about the beta program.
- Beta users may have to pay only $1 for a Starlink user terminal and internet service, but they also may need to install the devices themselves – and not talk publicly about their participation in the test program.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Hidden in the code of a SpaceX website are the first official pictures of satellite dishes designed to connect subscribers to Starlink, a fleet of low-flying, internet-beaming satellites.
What’s more, a review of the site’s code by Business Insider and, as we later learned, reviews by members of the Reddit community r/Starlink turned up numerous credible details about how an upcoming private beta test of Starlink might work.
SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk, has described the satellite dishes – called user terminals – as looking like a “UFO on a stick.” Though the company has not formally shared images of the terminals, fans have hunted down Starlink test sites listed in US regulatory documents and taken pictures of prototype antennas.
In this case, we first saw a tweet by Vivien Hantusch, a student at the Peter Behrens School of Arts who often interacts with Musk on Twitter, that said the official pictures came from the public source code of Starlink’s website. A Redditor with the username Bubby4j appears to have posted them first, on Tuesday morning.
“UFO on a stick aka Starlink user terminal looks beautiful,” Hantusch tweeted on Tuesday evening, sharing two crops of the images.
Her posts led Business Insider to carry out a wider review of the site code, which contained what appear to be in-depth details of the Starlink beta program.
Musk replied to Hantusch’s tweet with details he’s shared before about the terminals.
“Starlink terminal has motors to self-orient for optimal view angle. No expert installer required. Just plug in & give it a clear view of the sky,” Musk said. “Can be in garden, on roof, table, pretty much anywhere, so long as it has a wide view of the sky.”
SpaceX is gearing up to launch a private beta for Starlink this summer and a more public user test program later this year. The company sent emails overnight on Monday to Starlink beta applicants requesting addresses for where they’d like service.
Business Insider’s review of the Starlink website’s public source code suggests that SpaceX is very close to finishing a website for beta testers. SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Being a Starlink beta tester may cost $1 a month
The file links another user-terminal image (above) and includes programming logic for would-be users to enter a nontransferable participation code, create an account, and enter credit-card information and other data.
More important, roughly 2,000 words in the file feed webpages for supplemental Californian and European privacy policies, terms of service, and more. (If those links don’t work, Business Insider has archived known pages here.) According to the site’s pages, the fee to participate in “Starlink Beta” is $1 a month (though they later specify a $3 initial charge followed by $2 per month).
“These charges are not a fee for the Starlink hardware or services, but are being requested exclusively to allow for the testing of our ordering and billing systems as part of this beta program,” the Starlink website says.
“SpaceX is temporarily loaning you the hardware and providing the internet services free of charge. The $1 will be charged 30 days after your hardware is shipped.”
There’s also text explaining the rationale for the test program:
“Starlink Beta is an opportunity to be an early user of the SpaceX’s satellite internet system. The purpose of Starlink Beta is to gather feedback that will help us make decisions on how best to implement the system for Starlink’s official launch.
“By design, the beta experience will be imperfect. Our goal is to incorporate feedback from a variety of users to ensure we build the best satellite broadband internet system possible.”
An FAQ in the code expands on how the beta program might actually work.
An answer to a question about who can participate says that Starlink Beta “will begin in the Northern United States and lower Canada, with those living in rural and/or remote communities in the Washington state area.” Being in those locations won’t ensure participation, though, as SpaceX says it’s also considering how many participants are in a given area.
Importantly, beta testers will also need a clear view of the northern sky:
“Why do I need a clear view of the northern sky to be a beta tester? The Starlink system is currently made up of nearly 600 satellites orbiting the Earth that can provide internet service in a very specific range – between 44 and 52 degrees north latitude.
“Your Starlink dish requires a clear view of the Northern sky in order to communicate with the Starlink satellites. Without the clear view, the Starlink dish cannot make a good connection and your service will be extremely poor.”
But even with ideal service, participants shouldn’t expect a seamless web connection, the source code says, since SpaceX’s work to improve the satellite network may cause intermittent disruptions.
“When connected, your service quality will be high, but your connection will not be consistent,” it says. “This means it may support streaming video with some buffering, but likely is not suitable for gaming or work purposes.”
People who sign up will be permitted to order a “Starlink Kit.” Once they do, they’ll be greeted with an order-confirmation page, according to the file.
“Your Starlink Kit will arrive via FedEx pre-assembled with a Starlink dish, router, power supply and mount depending on your dwelling type,” the file says.
Near the end of the FAQ is more detail about SpaceX’s technical argument for creating the Starlink internet service:
“How does Starlink internet work? Starlink will deliver high-speed broadband internet across the globe with a large, low-Earth constellation of relatively small but advanced satellites. Satellite internet works by sending information through the vacuum of space, where it travels nearly 50% faster than in fiber-optic cable.
“Most satellite internet services today come from single geostationary satellites that orbit the planet at about 35,000km, covering a fixed region of the Earth. Starlink, on the other hand, is a constellation of multiple satellites that orbit the planet much lower at about 550km, and cover the entire globe.
“Because the satellites are in a low orbit, the round-trip data time between the user and the satellite – also known as latency – is much lower than with satellites in geostationary orbit. This enables Starlink to deliver services like online gaming that are usually not possible on other satellite broadband systems.”
Finally, the FAQ says that beta testers who want to cancel can do so “at any time.”
The first rule of Starlink Beta is you do not talk about Starlink Beta
The terms and conditions laid out in the file make clear the program isn’t one you can tell anyone about: Every tester will be required to sign a nondisclosure agreement.
“You are being provided early access to the Starlink Services. The Starlink Services and details like internet speeds, uptime, coverage, and other performance specifications are confidential and proprietary to SpaceX,” the file says.
“You may NOT discuss your participation in the Beta Program online or with those outside of your household, unless they are SpaceX employees.
“You must not share anything on social media about the Starlink Services or the Beta Program. This applies not only to public forums, but also to private accounts and restricted groups. Do not provide access or information about Starlink Services to the media or allow third-parties to take pictures of any part of the Starlink Kit.”
The site also says that over eight weeks testers may be expected to “dedicate an average of 30 minutes to 1 hour per day testing the Starlink Services and providing feedback on a periodic basis,” including through surveys, emails, and even calls with SpaceX employees.
Further, SpaceX also seems to want testers to install their own kits. This may be to test the ease of mounting an advanced satellite dish to a roof or wall, but perhaps also to protect trade secrets from curious local professionals who might post photos or descriptions of the tech.
“You are responsible for installing the Starlink Kit. Do not allow third-parties, or those not associated with SpaceX, to access or install the Starlink Kit unless you obtain approval” from SpaceX, the file says.
Doing anything illegal with a Starlink web connection won’t be tolerated, the terms say, noting user traffic will be monitored. Also, those users who don’t return the equipment within 30 days of SpaceX’s request will apparently be charged an “equipment fee.”
Though that fee is unspecified, it could be significant: The phased-array antenna inside each user terminal may cost more than $1,000 to make, some industry analysts have said.
Jake Swearingen and Samir Yahyazade contributed to this story.
Have a story or inside information to share about the spaceflight industry? Send Dave Mosher an email at email@example.com or a Twitter direct message at @davemosher. More secure communication options are listed here.
This story has been updated with new information.