An aerospace startup that plans to launch thousands of satellite “cell towers” into space says it has successfully sent a text message to a common Android smartphone using one of its satellites in orbit. The company claims it’s the first time a text message has ever been sent to an unmodified mobile phone from space, and it demonstrates the technology needed to provide global cellphone connectivity from orbit.
The company behind the breakthrough space text is called Lynk, which used to go by the name UbiquitiLink. Lynk is one of several space companies at the moment planning on building a constellation of thousands of satellites to provide some kind of connectivity to individuals on the ground. But rather than provide broadband internet coverage, Lynk is focused on providing cell service for the average mobile phone with its satellites, without the need for customers to provide any extra hardware.
“No one ever in human history has used a satellite to send a message directly to an unmodified mobile phone on the ground,” Charles Miller, co-founder and CEO of Lynk, tells The Verge. In order to get service from a satellite now, people have to either buy a specialized satellite phone or purchase an accessory that allows a typical smartphone to connect to a vehicle in orbit. The Lynk team say they have developed software for their satellites that “tricks” the average cellphone into connecting with the vehicles orbiting overhead whenever the phone is out of range of a regular cell tower.
To test out this technology, Lynk launched its third test payload to the International Space Station in December aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Astronauts on board the ISS then attached the payload to a Cygnus cargo spacecraft on the outside of the station. The Cygnus detached from the ISS on January 31st and has lingered in orbit ever since, allowing the Lynk team to test out their technology. And on February 24th, Lynk sent its first text with the payload, a message that read “This is a test” (though the first three letters were actually cut off in the message for some reason). It was received by an Android phone located on the Falkland Islands while the Cygnus capsule passed overhead.
Miller says it was a crucial technology demonstration that allows Lynk to move forward in building out its constellation. “We think if we can get the regulators to sign off, and with the support of our mobile network partners, there’s no reason tactically that we can’t implement the first global services by the end of the year,” says Miller. The plan is to start launching Lynk’s mini-satellites, which weigh about 55 pounds (25 kilograms) and will orbit at about 310 miles (500 kilometers) high. The company is capable of providing commercial services with just a few dozen satellites, but to provide 4G coverage, Lynk will need to launch thousands of its small vehicles. Numerous concerns have been raised about the kinds of impacts these constellations will have on the space environment, but Miller says Lynk’s footprint will be smaller than other constellations as its satellites are fairly tiny.
Miller’s aim with Lynk is to essentially turn all existing mobile phones into satellite phones, without requiring consumers to purchase any extra add-ons. Instead, existing mobile network operators would buy this capability from Lynk and provide it in their purchase plans to customers — making it a seamless process for the average mobile phone user. It’s this strategy that sets Lynk apart from other mega-constellation operators, such as SpaceX or OneWeb. In order to patch into those mega-constellations, customers will need to buy special equipment called “user terminals” to receive signal relays from the satellites. With Lynk, the mobile phone is the user terminal, says Miller.
Despite these differences, Miller says Lynk isn’t in direct competition with these other mega-constellations or even conventional cellular networks. The goal is to provide global cell service whenever a person is out of range of all these other options. “When you walk away from the Wi-Fi in your home or that [user terminal] antenna and you’re disconnected, then you’ll use us,” says Miller. “So we supplement everything that they don’t cover.”
But just like other mega-constellations, Lynk’s goal is the same: provide connectivity to the world, especially areas where people are out of range of cell towers or don’t have many connectivity options. “You’re talking instantly 5 billion customers who need your service in some amount — some more, some less,” says Miller. One major goal of Lynk is to provide “Everyone Everywhere Emergency” alerts to anyone on the globe, warning people of potential disasters such as tsunamis, hurricanes, and more.
Ultimately, Miller argues what Lynk is doing is more critical than racing to 5G. “What we’re doing is really bringing connectivity to more than a billion people who have zero connectivity; that’s life altering,” he says.
“We think that’s a really big deal — as big or a bigger deal than 5G.”