After two postponements, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket executed a mission that dealt out 60 Starlink broadband data satellites into low Earth orbit.
The rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, right on time, at 10:30 p.m. ET (7:30 p.m. PT) tonight. A little more than an hour after launch, the flat-panel satellites — which were built at SpaceX’s development facility in Redmond, Wash. — floated away from the Falcon 9’s second stage and spread themselves out like a deck of cards.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and his team have been careful about playing their cards right. The first launch attempt on May 15 was scrubbed with less than 15 minutes left in the countdown, due to concerns about upper-level winds.
A day later, the second attempt didn’t even get that close to liftoff. “Standing down to update satellite software and triple-check everything again,” SpaceX said in a tweet announcing the postponement. “Always want to do everything we can on the ground to maximize mission success.”
This time around, the countdown was as smooth as a card shark’s shuffle. The Falcon 9’s soot-stained, twice-used first-stage booster rose from the launch pad, and separated from the second stage minutes after liftoff. The booster flew itself back down on a drone ship called “Of Course I Still Love You,” stationed in the Atlantic Ocean.
The successful at-sea touchdown sparked cheers at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., and at the Redmond office as well. Later, Musk reported that sections of the rocket’s nose cone, which dropped away from the second stage during the ascent, were retrieved from the ocean for potential reuse.
Meanwhile, the second stage pressed on to orbit, shooting for satellite deployment at an altitude of 440 kilometers (273 miles). SpaceX made use of an unorthodox deployment method that involved having the stack of 60 satellites slowly disperse.
Starlink satellite deployment by SpaceX. pic.twitter.com/li4lA4LQ5h
— Wonder of Science (@wonderofscience) May 24, 2019
After their release, the satellites are designed to use their onboard krypton ion drives to raise their orbits to the prescribed 550-kilometer (342-mile) altitude.
At least that’s what Musk is betting on. “It’s possible that some of these satellites may not work,” he told reporters last week. “In fact, there’s a small possibility that all of the satellites will not work.”
These satellites will demonstrate the ability to provide high-speed internet connectivity for ground stations with a signal delay of less than 20 milliseconds, which is comparable to wired broadband. And this is just the first wave: Eventually, Musk expects SpaceX’s Redmond factory to turn out more than 1,000 satellites a year, with regular 60-satellite launches adding to the constellation.
SpaceX has authorization from the Federal Communications Commission to put for more than 11,000 satellites in low Earth orbit, but Musk says the Starlink service should be useful for internet service once there are 400 satellites in the constellation. Global coverage would be possible with 1,000 to 2,000 satellites, he said. That could happen as early as next year, if all goes according to plan.
There was a lot riding on tonight’s Starlink mission, and not just because the 18.5-ton payload was the largest amount of mass ever launched by a SpaceX rocket.
“The goal of the Starlink system is to provide high-bandwidth, low-latency connectivity, ideally throughout the world,” Musk said. Starlink is designed to provide a competitive connectivity option for the estimated 4 billion people around the world who can’t afford or can’t get access to broadband internet service.
— Alan Boyle (@b0yle) May 24, 2019
Starlink also has a lot of dollars-and-cents significance for SpaceX. Musk said it’s hard to imagine SpaceX’s launch business amounting to much more than $3 billion a year under current conditions. In contrast, the annual revenue from satellite data services could bring in $30 billion or more a year, he said.
“We see this as a way forward to generate revenue that can be used to develop more advanced rockets and spaceships,” he said. “And that, we think, is a key steppingstone on the way toward establishing a self-sustaining city on Mars and a base on the moon.”
The income from Starlink is meant to help fund advanced development of Starship, the super-heavy-lift launch system that Musk intends to use to send a million settlers to Mars in the decades ahead. The first prototypes of the Starship system are already taking shape at SpaceX’s facilities in Texas and Florida.
For what it’s worth, SpaceX isn’t the only company betting on satellite broadband services. There are at least a half-dozen other players angling for a piece of the broadband constellation market, including OneWeb, Amazon, Telesat, LeoSat Enterprises, Boeing and Facebook. OneWeb and Telesat have already begun deploying their own satellites in low Earth orbit.
The competition to offer high-speed internet from the sky seems certain to heat up in the years ahead — but SpaceX’s 60-satellite deal ups the ante considerably for everyone else.
Starlink satellites are equipped with one solar array instead of two, minimizing potential points of failure pic.twitter.com/bJirVr67fF
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) May 24, 2019