A photo of SpaceX's user terminal, or satellite dish, installed on a roof.
Ashish Sharma/SpaceX
  • SpaceX has launched hundreds of its internet-beaming Starlink satellites into orbit since 2019.
  • On Tuesday, a college student tweeted the first official SpaceX photos of satellite dishes, or user terminals, that will connect subscribers to the web.
  • Company founder Elon Musk has described the terminals as "UFOs on a stick" and confirmed their authenticity as SpaceX works to start a private beta test of the internet service this summer.
  • A review of Starlink.com's public source code by Business Insider revealed numerous potential details about the upcoming beta program.
  • Beta users may have to pay only $1 (R16) for a Starlink user terminal and internet service, but may need to install the devices themselves - and can't talk publicly about their participation in the test program.
  • For more articles, go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

Hidden in the code of a SpaceX website are the first official pictures of satellite dishes that will connect future subscribers to Starlink - a fleet of low-flying, internet-beaming satellites.

What's more, a review of the site's code by Business Insider turned up numerous credible details about how an upcoming beta test of Starlink might work.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has previously described the satellite dishes, or user terminals, as looking like a "UFO on a stick." Though the company has yet to formally share 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, Vivien Hantusch, a student at the Peter Behrens School of Arts (who often interacts with Musk on Twitter), found links to official pictures in the public source code of Starlink's website.

"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 the 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. To that end, the company sent emails overnight on Monday to Starlink beta applicants requesting addresses for where they'd like service.

A review by Business Insider of Starlink.com'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 (R16,66) a month

Company founder Elon Musk has called these user terminals "UFOs on a stick," and they're designed to connect to the internet via a fleet of orbiting Starlink satellites.
During our code review, Business Insider discovered a JavaScript file that appears to power a future page for beta invitees.

The code gives a picture of how the page would probably work, but could change before launch.

The file includes a link to another apparent user terminal image, above. It also has programming for would-be users to enter a non-transferable participation code and create an account.

More importantly, there are roughly 2,000 words in the file that appear to lay out a privacy policy, terms of service, and the fee to participate in "Starlink Beta" - $1 (R16,66) a month. (Though the file later specifies a $3 (R50) initial charge, followed by $2 (R33,30) per month charge thereafter.)

The Starlink website file says: "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."

"SpaceX is temporarily loaning you the hardware and providing the internet services free of charge. The $1 (R16,66) will be charged 30 days after your hardware is shipped."

Also in the file is text explaining the rationale for the test program:

Following that is an FAQ that expands on how the beta program might actually work.

An answer to a "who can participate" question says "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 is also considering how many participants are in a given area.

Importantly, would-be 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 file states, 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," the file says. "This means it may support streaming video with some buffering, but likely is not suitable for gaming or work purposes."

Users who complete the sign-up process will be permitted to order a "Starlink Kit" and, once they do, will be greeted with an order confirmation page, according to the code.

"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 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, text in the file says, beta testers who want to cancel can do so "at any time."

But the first rule of the Starlink Beta is you do not talk about Starlink Beta

SpaceX's Starlink-8 mission delivered a ninth batch of internet-beaming satellites into orbit on June 13, 2020, while leaving behind a stunning blue-rainbow cloud in the skies over coastal Florida.
However, the terms and conditions laid out in the text make clear the program isn't one you can tell anyone about, since every tester will be required to sign a non-disclosure 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."

The file goes on to add: "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."

Over the course of 8 weeks, the file says, 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 surveys, emails, and 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 handymen (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 form [sic] SpaceX," the file's text says.

Doing anything illegal with a Starlink web connection won't be tolerated, according to SpaceX's file, and 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 (R16,660) to make, according to some industry analysts.

Jake Swearingen and Samir Yahyazade contributed to this story.

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