SpaceX Blasts Off More Satellites, Amid Pandemic

Orbital launch firm SpaceX continues to ramp up its satellite-internet business with the news of the launch of another 60 broadband satellites.

This brings its total for the Starlink network to 182 satellites, after the firm launched 60 broadband satellites in January this year, on top of the initial 60 “Starlink” satellites launched in May last year.

The latest batch were launched on a Falcon-9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Wednesday 18 March 2020.

Image credit: SpaceX

New launch

According to CNN, this is the sixth launch of its kind that Elon Musk’s company has sent up into orbit over the past year.

The Falcon 9 rocket typically carries 60 flat-packed satellites, and SpaceX hopes to begin offering its Starlink broadband service to US customers on a regional basis in mid-2020, providing it can place enough satellites into orbit in time.

SpaceX has said that it intends to launch 24 Starlink missions in 2020, as part of its strategy to place up to 12,000 satellites in orbit, with approximately 2,000 satellites launched per year.

However, it is not clear what impact the Coronavirus pandemic will have on this schedule, as the world and individual communities go into lockdown to combat the spread of virus.

The long term goal however is to eventually place up to 42,000 satellites into orbit.

It should be noted that each satellite weighs a hefty 227kgs and contains a single solar array. Each satellite has its own electric propulsion system that expels electrically charged atoms of krypton in order to provide thrust.

The engine also maintains its correct position, and to bring the satellite down at the end of its service life.

This last point is important due to increasing concerns about space clutter in orbit.

The plan eventually is to expand the Starlink network to the rest of the world.

Elon Musk has made clear that he sees the Starlink service as a way of funding SpaceX’s ambition to develop a spacecraft that can carry passengers to the moon, and eventually colonise Mars.

Starlink reportedly is expected to generate roughly $3 billion a year in revenue.

SpaceX had raised more than $1 billion (£790m) last year to help fund its broadband satellite ambitions.

Rival networks

But Space X is not the only player in rolling out satellite-based Internet connectivity.

The other companies racing to construct satellite-based broadband networks include Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which intends to deploy a 3,200-satellite network known as Project Kuiper.

Other players include Kepler, LeoSat and Telesat Canada.

But perhaps the most immediate challenge to SpaceX’s Starlink comes from British start-up OneWeb, which launched its first satellites in February 2019.

In March 2019 OneWeb raised a total of $3.4 billion (£2.63bn) in private funding, paving the way for a series of monthly launches this autumn to build an initial network of 650 satellites operating at 1,200km.

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Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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