A landmark launch and deploy puts the first 60 satellites into orbit, beginning the master plan of delivering internet to the world.
SpaceX has officially entered the satellite broadband race, delivering 60 Starlink satellites to orbit via a Falcon 9 rocket. The workhorse rocket achieved liftoff at 7:30 p.m. PT Thursday from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Originally scheduled for last week, the first delivery of the Starlink satellites was scrubbed twice, one due to bad weather and a second time to “maximize mission success”. After those hurdles were cleared, Falcon 9 blasted through the dark Florida coast and headed to space with a typically dazzling lift off.
The Falcon 9 booster successfully landed on the Of Course I Still Love You droneship stationed in the Atlantic Ocean, after being used in two previous SpaceX launches.
An achievement, sure, but for the company’s future global internet aspirations, the successful deployment of 60 Starlink satellites to orbit is the far bigger story.
Starlink aims to provide satellite broadband to customers across the globe. Eventually, the service will form a net of satellites around the Earth, featuring some 12,000 space robots in a constellation that leaves no corner of the planet without internet. At approximately 8:32 p.m. PT, the first 60 of these satellites were released from the payload bay of the Falcon 9, 273 miles (440 kilometers) above Earth. Small boosters will see the satellites push out to an orbit of 342 miles (550 kilometers).
The satellites, which look like flat-panel TVs, drifted out of the payload bay at once. There are no deployment mechanisms on board and so the pack of 60 slowly float away from each other like a deck of cards spilling out of a hand. Each satellite weighs 500 pounds apiece and contains a single solar array, tiny thrusters, a navigation system that allows SpaceX to find them in orbit and a handful of high-throughput antennas, so they can flick signals around. The single solar array design is to minimize the potential points of failure, and in orbit, the array folds out like an accordion.
Elon Musk tweeted Thursday evening that all 60 satellites are online and the ion thrusters would activate sometime in the early hours of Friday.
Six more launches are required before Starlink will be fully operational, but this first launch provides SpaceX with a chance to test the performance of their constellation. During a press event on May 15, Musk said “There is a lot of new technology, so it’s possible that some of these satellites may not work” and suggested there is a “small possibility that all of these satellites will not work.”
Musk’s SpaceX isn’t the only company trying to launch a megaconstellation of internet-providing satellites. OneWeb, which is backed by Richard Branson’s Virgin and Qualcomm, launched its first six satellites on Feb. 27, off the back of Arianespace’s Russian Soyuz-2. OneWeb has yet to launch a second batch of satellites but will eventually be flying elements of its constellation to orbit every 21 days. It’ll be partnering both with Virgin Orbit and Blue Origin to get their satellites into space.
Similarly, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, announced his company is also looking at getting into the satellite broadband game. On April 4, it announced its satellite constellation, Project Kuiper, though the specifics and expected launch dates are currently unknown.