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Bench Talk for Design Engineers

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New Tech Tuesdays: Starlink: The Satellite-Based Internet Service by SpaceX Rudy Ramos

New Tech Tuesdays

Join Rudy Ramos for a weekly look at all things interesting, new, and noteworthy for design engineers.

You would be hard-pressed to find someone, at least in the United States, who has not heard of SpaceX. SpaceX and several other companies—including Tesla, The Boring Company, Neuralink, and Twitter—are owned by multi-billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk.

One of SpaceX’s ventures is Starlink. According to the Starlink website, “Starlink is the world's first and largest satellite constellation using a low Earth orbit to deliver broadband internet capable of supporting streaming, online gaming, video calls and more.” The Starlink satellite-based internet service aims to provide high-speed internet to areas where traditional internet services are not available or are too slow.

The Starlink network consists of a constellation of small satellites that orbit the Earth at a low altitude of about 550km. These satellites are linked together by laser communication links, which allow them to communicate with each other and ground stations on Earth. Starlink's unique ability to provide high-speed, low-latency internet access to users in remote and rural areas makes it a game changer for bridging the digital divide and improving global internet access.

Starlink System

To use Starlink, you need a user terminal, which is a small, pizza-box-sized antenna that can be mounted on a roof or a pole. The user terminal communicates with the Starlink satellites using phased-array antenna technology, which allows it to track and communicate with multiple satellites simultaneously. When you request a website or online service through your device, the data is transmitted to the nearest Starlink satellite in orbit. The satellite then relays the data to another satellite or ground station, which in turn, relays it to the internet backbone on Earth. The data is then routed to its destination, and the response is sent back to the Starlink network, which relays it to your device through the same process in reverse.

Beamforming Technique

Starlink uses beamforming as a key part of its communication system to enhance the performance and efficiency of its network. There are two main types of beamforming: analog and digital. Analog beamforming uses phase shifters to adjust the phase of the RF signal transmitted by each antenna, while digital beamforming uses signal processing algorithms to manipulate the RF signal after it has been received by the antenna array.

Beamforming signal processing techniques are used in wireless communication systems, including cellular networks, Wi-Fi®, and satellite communications. Some other examples of beamforming include radar systems, where beamforming enables the system to detect and track the target with greater precision. Autonomous vehicles use beamforming to improve the performance of sensors such as LiDAR and radar. Medical Imaging employs beamforming in ultrasound machines to produce high-quality images of the body's internal structures. And Sound Navigation and Ranging (SONAR) systems, specifically active SONAR systems, use a phased array of transducers to transmit and receive sound waves. By adjusting the phase and amplitude of each transducer, the system can create a beam of sound focused in a specific direction. This beamforming technique allows the sonar system to detect and locate objects with greater accuracy and resolution.

The Starlink network uses a technique called "dynamic beamforming," which means that the system can adjust the beam of the RF signal in real time as the satellite passes over the Earth. Dynamic beamforming enables the system to maintain a strong connection to user terminals as they move or as weather conditions change. In addition to improving the signal strength and quality, beamforming also allows Starlink to increase the capacity of its network by reusing the same frequencies for different beams. Because the beams are directed toward specific locations on the ground, there is less interference between different beams, and the system can reuse the same frequencies without causing interference.

Bandwidth Speeds

In terms of raw bandwidth, fiber optic internet, for instance, offers much faster speeds than Starlink. Fiber optic cables can transmit data at speeds up to 100Gbps, while Starlink is currently advertised to provide internet speeds of up to 1Gbps with latency ranging from 20ms to 40ms. However, the speed and latency of Starlink's service is expected to improve as SpaceX continues to launch more satellites and upgrade its infrastructure.

Nevertheless, as previously mentioned, the key advantage of Starlink over fiber optic internet is its ability to provide high-speed internet access to users in remote and rural areas where laying fiber optic cables is impractical or cost prohibitive. In many parts of the world, especially in less developed countries, fiber optic infrastructure is not widely available or accessible, leaving large segments of the population without reliable high-speed internet access.

In addition, Starlink's low-latency internet connectivity can be especially beneficial for applications that require real-time data transmission, such as online gaming, video conferencing, and remote surgery. Traditional satellite internet services often suffer from high latency due to the distance the signal needs to travel between the satellite and the ground-based terminal. In contrast, Starlink’s low Earth orbit satellites are designed to provide low-latency connectivity.

New Tech Tuesday’s Featured Products

This week’s New Tech Tuesday features the Qorvo QPF4617 Wi-Fi® 6E Non-Linear Front-End Module and the AVA-0233LN+ RF Amplifier from Mini-Circuits. Both products are on the cutting edge of the innovations in RF communications that make technology like SpaceX’s Starlink possible.

Qorvo QPF4617 Wi-Fi® 6E Non-Linear Front-End Module

The QPF4617 from Qorvo is a highly efficient non-linear integrated front-end module (FEM) that operates in the 6GHz frequency band, specifically designed for Wi-Fi 6E (802.11ax) systems. This device integrates a 6GHz power amplifier (PA), a single pole two-throw switch (SP2T), and a bypassable low noise amplifier (LNA) into a single compact package. The QPF4617 is optimized for PA efficiency with a 5V supply voltage, which minimizes power consumption and allows for digital pre-distortion (DPD) correction to achieve the highest linear output power and leading-edge throughput for the RF chain. Additionally, the small 24-pad 5 x 3mm laminate package form factor minimizes layout area in the application, making it an ideal choice for space-constrained designs.

AVA-0233LN+ RF Amplifier from Mini-Circuits

The AVA-0233LN+ GaAs pHEMT MMIC distributed amplifier from Mini-Circuits is designed to take your RF engineering projects to the next level. With its wide operating range of 2 to 30GHz, this powerful amplifier delivers impressive performance with a solid 16.3dB gain, 2.4dB noise figure, +13.6dB P1dB, and +25.7dBm OIP3 from a self-biased single +5V supply drawing only 65mA. One of the standout features of the AVA-0233LN+ is its VC control voltage bias input, which enables the gain to be varied by over 30dB across the operating band. This versatility makes it the perfect choice for a wide range of applications, including 5G MIMO and backhaul radio systems, satellite Ka-Band communications, test and measurement equipment, radar, Electronic Warfare (EW), and Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) defense systems. At just 5x5mm, the AVA-0233LN+ is housed in an industry-standard QFN-style package with RF ports internally matched to 50Ω, allowing easy integration into microwave system PC boards. Its small footprint not only saves space in dense layouts but also provides low inductance, repeatable transitions, and excellent thermal contact to the PCB, ensuring superior performance and reliability.

Tuesday’s Takeaway

SpaceX has ambitious plans to expand its Starlink satellite network in the coming years, with the goal of bringing high-speed and affordable internet access to people worldwide, especially those in rural and remote areas. The company aims to offer commercial services in more countries and to continuously improve the performance of its satellite technology. With its ability to provide faster and more reliable internet access than many existing options, Starlink has the potential to revolutionize global connectivity and bridge the digital divide, not just for consumers and businesses but also for critical applications such as disaster response and military communications. This week’s featured product offerings from Qorvo and Mini-Circuits are at the forefront of RF communications development. These cutting-edge products incorporate state-of-the-art features, ensuring optimal efficiency and reliability in even the most demanding RF applications.

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Rudy RamosRudy is a member of the Technical Content Marketing team at Mouser Electronics, bringing 35+ years of expertise in advanced electromechanical systems, robotics, pneumatics, vacuum systems, high voltage, semiconductor manufacturing, military hardware, and project management. As a technology subject matter expert, Rudy supports global marketing efforts through his extensive product knowledge and by creating and editing technical content for Mouser's website. Rudy has authored technical articles appearing in engineering websites and holds a BS in Technical Management and an MBA with a concentration in Project Management. Prior to Mouser, Rudy worked for National Semiconductor and Texas Instruments.

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