Update May 23, 11:35 PM ET: SpaceX successfully deployed all 60 Starlink satellites into orbit after liftoff, and individual vehicles will deploy into orbit over time. The company also landed its Falcon 9 rocket after launch, marking the third time this particular rocket has gone into space and back.
Update May 123, 00:57 AM ET: All 60 Starlink satellites are Now online. The deployment of the solar array should be happening soon.
Original story: Tonight, SpaceX will attempt to jump-start its ambitious Internet-from-space initiative known as Starlink, launching the first 60 production satellites of nearly 12,000 spacecraft planned in a low-Earth orbit. These inaugural probes don’t have all the capabilities that completed satellites are supposed to have, but their launch will get the ball rolling on Starlink, and should help SpaceX learn what it takes to operate a large number of vehicles in space.
“This was one of the most difficult engineering projects I have seen, and it has been executed really well,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said during a conference call.
Starlink is one of SpaceX’s most formidable projects. SpaceX plans to put two groups of satellites into orbit: a batch of 4,409 satellites that will operate between 340 miles (550 kilometers) and 823 miles (1,325 kilometers) upward. And then there is a second batch of 7,518 satellites that would fly slightly lower, between 208 miles (335 kilometers) and 214 miles (346 kilometers) in altitude. That’s a total of 11,927 Earth-focused satellites, providing Internet connectivity to one million user terminals on the surface.
“This was one of the most difficult engineering projects I have ever seen done.”
Ultimately, the goal is to provide global coverage of the Internet from space, with very short delay times in the signal, something that today’s Internet streaming satellites cannot achieve. Most of the satellites that provide Internet coverage from space are in much higher orbits, known as a geostationary orbit, a path about 22,000 miles above the equator. The problem with these satellites, however, is that it takes a long time to get their data, as the signals have to travel thousands of kilometers through space and back. That is why SpaceX and other aerospace companies are proposing constellations in much lower orbits, to reduce this latency problem.
When you move to lower orbits, you need many more satellites to provide complete coverage of the Earth, which is why SpaceX and others propose new constellations numbering in the hundreds and thousands. Right now, there are nearly 2,000 operational satellites in orbit, but satellite internet initiatives like those of SpaceX, OneWeb and many more could quadruple that number. Many aerospace experts have wondered how it could jam space around Earth and expressed concern about the risks of in-flight collisions and space debris. To reduce the chance of creating debris, SpaceX has proposed moving some of its satellites to lower orbits, and it also plans to ditch these satellites over the water, where they will almost completely burn up in the atmosphere and pose no threat to people. or property below.
However, Musk maintains that the chances of collisions in space will be small. “The space junk thing – we don’t want to trivialize it or not take it seriously, because we certainly take it seriously, but it’s not crowded there,” Musk says. “It is extremely rare.”
If the risks of debris are addressed, the benefits of these constellations could be immense, especially in rural and remote areas. “This would provide connectivity to people who do not have any connectivity today, or where it is extremely expensive and unreliable,” says Musk. He also said that this system “would offer a competitive option” to people in more developed areas who might want another option for their Internet provider.
The Federal Communications Commission has already granted SpaceX permission to launch its entire constellation of nearly 12,000 satellites. SpaceX launched its first two test satellites, TinTin A and TinTin B, in February 2018, and the company now has about six years to launch half of the full constellation to bring its license with the FCC to full use.
“This would provide connectivity to people who either don’t have any connectivity today, or where it is extremely expensive and unreliable.”
Tonight’s launch will see SpaceX begin to meet its deadline, although the satellites found on this mission do not have the full capabilities of the completed probes. They have radio antennas to communicate with Earth, thrusters that can propel them through space, as well as star trackers that help orient and navigate. SpaceX claims that satellites can even autonomously track other orbiting debris using Air Force tracking data and avoid contact with objects. But these early satellites don’t have a way to communicate with each other, which will be necessary in the future. Because the satellites will advance over Earth, they will have to change coverage each time they move to a new patch of the surface, and that will require satellite-to-satellite communication.
However, Musk said these early satellites can fix this problem by bouncing the signals from the gateways off the ground which can then send signals to another satellite. “That way we can get connectivity without using inter-satellite links,” says Musk. “The system can still have global connectivity” except in some places where it would need a gateway to retrieve signals over the ocean. Musk says this solution will only be needed for the first batches of production satellites. “It’s version one,” says Musk. “When we get to version two and three, we hope to add internal laser satellite links.”
Over the weekend, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk showed a picture of the 60 satellites stacked on top of each other inside the nose of the Falcon 9 rocket that will carry them into orbit. It’s a tight fit inside the vehicle, and each satellite weighs around 500 pounds (227 kilograms) each, making this the heaviest payload SpaceX has ever taken into space, weighing in at 18.5 tons.
SpaceX plans to continue launching batches of 60 in the coming years, with the goal of launching between 1,000 and 2,000 satellites a year, according to Musk. Musk says the company can get full coverage after about 24 launches, but will continue to add satellites as more customers opt for the system. “You don’t need about 10,000 satellites to be effective,” he says.
“You don’t need about 10,000 satellites to be effective.”
The plan also revolves around SpaceX deploying ground stations and user terminals that receive the signals from the satellites. Musk described the individual user terminals as pizza-shaped antennas that point skyward and find the closest satellite to connect to. “You won’t even notice the fact that you’re switching between satellites,” says Musk. “There is a lot of advanced technology here, down to the chip level.”
And if all goes well, Musk expects SpaceX to receive a large chunk of money, which could be used to fund the company’s long-term projects, such as the development of a new giant rocket called the Starship. “Total internet connectivity revenue in the world is on the order of a trillion dollars, and we think we can maybe access about 3 percent, or maybe 5 percent,” he says.
But first, SpaceX has to get started. The Falcon 9 that will bring all 60 satellites into orbit tonight is one SpaceX has used several times before. It flew to the Telstar 18 VANTAGE satellite in September 2018 and then flew a second time in January this year, taking a group of orbiting satellites for Iridium. It will now fly tonight from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and after takeoff, it will attempt to land on one of SpaceX’s drone ships in the Atlantic Ocean. That means this vehicle could potentially fly a fourth time if it hits a touchdown.
This launch was originally supposed to take place last week, but was delayed once due to high winds over the launch site. SpaceX was postponed until this week to verify the software on the satellites. Now, liftoff is scheduled for 10:30 PM ET, and SpaceX has a launch window that lasts an hour and a half longer, so the company can take off until 12:00 AM ET. About an hour after liftoff, SpaceX will deploy the satellites into orbit by rotating the rocket and using the inertia of the satellites to distribute them into orbit. SpaceX plans to show the entire mission from start to finish, with live coverage beginning approximately 15 minutes before launch. Check back then to see what should be an interesting satellite display.
Update May 16, 8:30 PM ET: After delaying the launch on Wednesday, May 15, due to high winds, SpaceX delayed the launch again on Thursday, May 16 to update the software on the satellites. “We always want to do everything we can on the ground to maximize the success of the mission.” the company tweeted.