SpaceX confirmed that it will launch dozens of Starlink satellites in one go, as early as May 15, setting the stage for what’s expected to become a constellation of thousands of satellites providing global broadband data access from low Earth orbit.
The company’s president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, laid out those details today at the Satellite 2019 conference in Washington, D.C. In an email exchange with GeekWire, SpaceX confirmed what Shotwell said but could add no further information.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk launched the Starlink project in 2015 in Seattle, telling VIPs and developers that the constellation could spread high-speed internet access to the billions of people around the world who lack such access today — and generate the revenue SpaceX would need to build a city on Mars. Income from Starlink is said to figure prominently in SpaceX’s projections for its bottom line.
The Starlink satellite development program is headquartered at SpaceX’s facilities in Redmond, Wash. Last year, the Redmond operation was reorganized to accelerate design and testing.
Two test satellites, nicknamed TinTin A and B, were launched in February 2018, and Musk reported a year ago that the broadband connection was good enough for playing video games. But the spacecraft design is said to have changed significantly since then. The launch set for next week at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida will be the first to carry satellites reflecting the new design.
Shotwell characterized this first wave as a demonstration set, with no satellite-to-satellite communication links. Depending on how the demonstrations proceed, from two to six Starlink launches could follow by the end of this year, she said.
SpaceX’s filings with the Federal Communication Commission lay out a plan for two interoperating constellations, consisting of 4,409 satellites in one set of orbits and another 7,518 in lower orbits. The FCC gave its final go-ahead for the first set a couple of weeks ago.
SpaceX has said it plans to start offering broadband service in the 2020-2021 time frame, and the company is facing an FCC requirement to put half of the satellites in its first constellation into operation by 2024.
Several other ventures are planning to put their own broadband data satellite constellations in orbit over roughly the same time frame:
- OneWeb launched the first six satellites of its constellation last year, with billions of dollars in backing from SoftBank and other high-profile investors.
- Telesat has a demonstration satellite in orbit and has struck deals for more satellite launches in the 2021-and-beyond time frame.
- LeoSat Enterprises announced this week that it has signed more than $2 billion in pre-launch commercial agreements for its planned broadband connection, and that FMC GlobalSat will make use of LeoSat’s future network. FMC GlobalSat already is taking advantage of Redmond-based Kymeta’s flat-panel antennas to provide satellite data access.
- Amazon acknowledged last month that it is developing a 3,236-satellite broadband data constellation, code-named Project Kuiper, and is hiring dozens of employees to work on the project in Bellevue, Wash. Amazon hasn’t yet announced its time frame for satellite deployment or the start of service.
Facebook and Boeing have also considered developing broadband satellite constellations, although their plans are a bit more up in the air (so to speak). In addition, Cloud Constellation Corp. is working on a satellite network specifically tailored for cloud data storage, while Kepler Communications and Swarm Technologies are targeting satellite-based Internet of Things connectivity.