SpaceX tends to avoid patenting its technology out of concern that China could use the legal filings as blueprints to copy and paste. Elon Musk provided this explanation to Wired in 2012:
We have essentially no patents in SpaceX. Our primary long-term competition is in China — if we published patents, it would be farcical, because the Chinese would just use them as a recipe book.
The major exception for the space exploration company is Starlink, SpaceX’s developing broadband internet service that relies on satellites deployed on Falcon 9 rockets.
As Michael Sheetz highlights, a number of patent filings related to Starlink antennas were published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on December 3, 2020.
The new round of patent filings highlight the maturity of SpaceX’s Starlink service that is currently in public beta for users in northwestern parts of the United States. SpaceX plans to steadily expand its invite-only beta program in the first quarter of 2021 as the Starlink satellite constellation grows.
SpaceX typically adds 60 new Starlink satellites in Earth orbit every few weeks with Falcon 9 rocket launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Prior to today’s filings, SpaceX only had one other patent published this year when a patent for a laser-perforated metal honeycomb material that was filed last year and was published in March. Four Starlink antenna patents were published in 2019, and single patents for published in 2018 and 2009.
The new patent filings cover a range of technologies related to Starlink antennas:
- ANTENNA APPARATUS HAVING ANTENNA SPACER
- ANTENNA APPARATUS HAVING ADHESIVE COUPLING
- ANTENNA APPARATUS HAVING CHASSIS PORTION
- ANTENNA APPARATUS HAVING FASTENER SYSTEM
- ANTENNA APPARATUS HAVING RADOME SPACING
- ANTENNA APPARATUS HAVING HEAT DISSIPATION FEATURES
The final patent in the group covers “Tilted Earth-based Antenna Systems and method of tilting for communication with a satellite system,” which is described in the patent like this:
In one embodiment of the present disclosure, a satellite communication system includes a satellite constellation including a plurality of satellites in non-geosynchronous orbit (non-GEO), wherein at least some of the plurality of satellites travel in a first orbital path at a first inclination, and an end point terminal having an earth-based geographic location, the end point terminal having an antenna system defining a field of regard for communicating with the satellite constellation, wherein the field of regard is a limited field of regard, wherein the field of regard is tilted from a non-tilted position to a tilted position, and wherein the tilt angle of the tilted position is a function of the latitude of the geographic location.
Each patent published today was filed earlier this year in June.