SpaceX Launches 60 Broadband Satellites Into Low Earth Orbit

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SpaceX begins rollout of its Starlink satellite-based broadband network, with the first of 12,000 satellites

Elon Musk’s SpaceX company has successfully launched 60 “Starlink” satellites for the company’s low earth orbit-based broadband project.

A Falcon 9 rocket carried the 60 flat-packed satellites, after it lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 0230 GMT Friday.

The launch had been expected earlier this month, but had to be delayed due to high winds and the need to update satellite software and “triple-check” all systems.

Satellite broadband

It took an hour after launch to deploy the 60 satellites into low earth orbit.

The Falcon 9’s main-stage reusable booster rocket then returned to Earth and landed successfully on a barge floating in the Atlantic ocean.

The Starlink service has been approved to begin offering Internet connectivity in the United States, after American regulators in April permitted SpaceX to launch 4,409 Starlink satellites in total, with 1,584 of those positioned at a low altitude of 550km (342 miles).

SpaceX however will only start touting the service to US customers later this year when it has enough satellites in orbit.

It will need a further six Falcon 9 launches to get “minor broadband coverage”. A dozen launches are need to achieve moderate coverage.

The plan eventually is to expand this high speed internet service to the rest of the world, but to make this a global reality, SpaceX intends to place a total of 12,000 satellites in orbit, with approximately 2,000 satellites launched per year.

It is planned that SpaceX’s global network will go live in the mid-2020s, after the launch of about 800 satellites.

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.

An illustration of a Big Falcon Rocket launch. Image credit: SpaceX
An illustration of a Big Falcon Rocket launch. Image credit: SpaceX

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

“We think this is a key stepping stone on the way toward establishing a self-sustaining city on Mars and a base on the moon,”Musk was quoted by Reuters as saying.

Space junk?

It should be noted that each satellite weighs a hefty 227kgs and contains a single solar array.

The Starlink satellites are actually pretty small and have been placed in low-earth orbit. This low orbit was chosen to minimise the latency of the internet connections.

Indeed, the satellites orbit closer to Earth than traditional communications satellites thanks to advances in laser technology and computer chips.

According to the BBC, each Starlink satellite has its own electric propulsion system that expels electrically charged atoms of krypton in order to provide thrust.

Those engine are needed to lift each satellite from its drop-off altitude of 440km (270 miles) to its operational height of 550km (342 miles). 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 Union of Concerned Scientists’ has stated there are just 2,000 operational satellites in orbit today, but the SpaceX network will swell this number dramatically, as it intends to place 12,000 units in orbit.

According to the BBC, SpaceX said it intends to be a responsible actor and had given its satellites the ability themselves to track orbital debris and to autonomously avoid it.

And all Starlink satellites are 95 percent constructed from components that should burn up on re-entry to the atmosphere when decommissioned.

Rival networks

But SpaceX is not the only player in beginning 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.

In March OneWeb said it had 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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Author: Tom Jowitt
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