Starlink is a satellite constellation development project underway by SpaceX, to develop a low-cost, high-performance satellite bus and requisite customer ground transceivers to implement a new spaceborne Internet communication system.
SpaceX has said it will offer speeds of up to 1 Gbit/s, with latencies between 25 ms and 35 ms. Those latencies would make SpaceX's service comparable to cable and fiber, while existing satellite broadband services have latencies of 600 ms or more, according to FCC measurements.
Figure 1: Starlink constellation logo (image credit: SpaceX)
Some background: In November 2016, SpaceX filed an application with the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) for a license to operate a constellation of 4425 non-geostationary satellites (NGS) in orbits ranging from 1100 and 1300 km. However, when they issued their regulatory filings in 2017, the plan called for the deployment of nearly 12,000 satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). 1)
However, competition from other satellite internet providers forced SpaceX to expedite their plans. By the Fall of 2018, the company announced a new plan to deploy their first batch of 1600 satellites to a lower altitude at 550 km. The development team also introduced a simplified design so that the first batch would be ready to go no later than the June of 2019.
Rather than broadcasting in two bands (“Ku” and “Ka”), the simplified design of the first batch will broadcast only in the “Ku” band. At present, SpaceX hopes to launch 2200 satellites in the next five years, which will act as a sort of prototype while the company develops an improved design for full-scale production.
Eventually, this will result in a constellation that offers the kinds of performance outlined in the company’s original plan. This presents numerous challenges, not the least of which is the fact that they will need to conduct launches every month for the next five years, averaging 44 satellites per launch.
Second, there’s the matter of attrition, as satellites will begin to deorbit after a few years and SpaceX will need to replace them regularly in order to maintain its constellation. In fact, Hugh Lewis – the UK Space Agency’s representative on the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee – recently stated that in order to maintain a constellation of just 4425 satellites, SpaceX will have to launch that many every five years.
However, SpaceX intends to use this to their advantage by gradually replacing inactive satellites with ones that offer superior performance. In this way, the constellation will gradually be upgraded with the addition of heavier satellites that are capable of transmitting more information, and which are placed in longer-lasting, higher orbits.
Starlink is also going to be seeing competition in the coming years thanks to companies like OneWeb and Telesat, which plans to create smaller constellations that will offer service by 2021. Tech giants like Amazon and Samsung have also announced plans to deploy their own constellations, which would consist of 3,236 to 4600 broadband satellites, respectively.
Designed and built upon the heritage of Dragon, each spacecraft is equipped with a Startracker navigation system that allows SpaceX to point the satellites with precision. Importantly, Starlink satellites are capable of tracking on-orbit debris and autonomously avoiding collision. Additionally, 95 percent of all components of this design will quickly burn in Earth’s atmosphere at the end of each satellite’s lifecycle—exceeding all current safety standards—with future iterative designs moving to complete disintegration. This mission will push the operational capabilities of the satellites to the limit. SpaceX expects to encounter issues along the way, but the lessons learned here are key to developing an affordable and reliable broadband service in the future (Ref. 60).
Some spacecraft parameters: 2)
• Flat-panel design with multiple high-throughput antennas and a single solar array
• Spacecraft mass: 227 kg
• Hall-effect thrusters using krypton as the reaction mass, for position adjustment on orbit, altitude maintenance and deorbit
• Star tracker navigation system for precision pointing
• Able to use Department of Defense provided debris data to autonomously avoid collision 3)
• 95 percent of "all components of this design will quickly burn in Earth’s atmosphere at the end of each satellite’s lifecycle"
The 60 Starlink V1.0 satellites, launched on 11 November 2019, have the additional following characteristics:
• 100% of "all components of this design will quickly burn in Earth's atmosphere at the end of each satellite's lifecycle."
• Ka-band added
• Spacecraft mass of 260 kg
• Albedo reduced.
The satellites are stacked for launch without the need for a dispenser. As a propulsion system for orbit adjustment and maintenance as well as deorbiting, they use krypton-fueled Hall thrusters. The startracker navigation system is based on the heritage of Dragon. The satellites are designed autonomously avoid collisions based on uplinked tracking data. At the end of life, the Starlink satellites are to be actively deorbited, leading to reentry.
Orbit: Circular orbit with an altitude of 550 km. The Starlink spacecraft constellation will be spread into 24 orbital planes with an inclination of 53º.
• August 26, 2021: SpaceX is adding laser terminals on all future Starlink satellites and is the reason behind a break in launches for the broadband megaconstellation, president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell said. 4)
- Shotwell told the Space Symposium Aug. 24 that its decision to add laser crosslinks, enabling the satellites to communicate with each other to reduce their reliance on ground stations, is “why we have been struggling” to launch a Starlink mission since June 30.
- SpaceX had been conducting an aggressive launch campaign with its Falcon 9 rocket throughout the first half 2021 before the hiatus, enlarging the Starlink constellation to more than 1,600 satellites in low Earth orbit.
- Typically, each Falcon 9 launch for the network has placed 60 Starlink satellites at a time. There were four Starlink launch missions this May alone.
- SpaceX has regulatory permission to operate 4,408 satellites at 550-kilometers altitude for global coverage.
- Shotwell said the next Starlink launch will be in “roughly three weeks.”
- SpaceX launched 10 Starlink satellites with laser crosslinks to polar orbit in January, its first with the capability, so it did not need ground stations over the poles.
- By enabling communications from one satellite to another on the same or adjacent orbital plane, a ground station does not have to be in the same satellite footprint as user terminals.
- As well as reducing the number of ground stations needed for global coverage, laser crosslinks links can also lower latency because they reduce the number of hops between satellites and ground stations.
Antenna pain point
- The price of user terminals remains a challenge for SpaceX, which is heavily subsidizing them. Shotwell told the conference that SpaceX continues to lose money on user terminals with every customer it acquires, because their cost is higher than the average user can afford.
- “We were able to tackle almost all of the elements of the cost before we rolled out service, with the exception of the user terminal,” she said.
- She said the company is on track to reduce the cost of its user terminals, which are priced to consumers at $499, by roughly half before the end of this year.
- “And then we think we’ll be able to cut that in half yet again,” she added.
- However, she pointed to a global lack of semiconductors that has “delayed the new user terminals,” and a shortage of liquid oxygen that is posing other challenges for the launch side of its business.
• June 1, 2021: Satellite operator Viasat is stepping up efforts to stop Starlink’s growing constellation, taking aim at the nearly $900 million of rural broadband subsidies that SpaceX won in December. 5)
Figure 2: SpaceX launched four batches of Starlink satellites across four separate missions in May 2021 (image credit: SpaceX)
- The operator is asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to review decisions made around the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), claiming differential treatment and a lack of transparency.
- In an Application for Review (AFR) filed June 1, Viasat calls on the regulator to probe a series of decisions related to bidding to provide low-latency internet service under RDOF’s Phase 1, also known as Auction 904.
- Viasat initially filed its AFR with the FCC Jan. 29, on a confidential basis, to review why it was not permitted to bid for the subsidies with its proposed low Earth orbit constellation, despite already operating broadband satellites in geostationary orbit.
- Mark Dankberg, Viasat’s co-founder and executive chair, outlined a LEO constellation of nearly 300 satellites in May 2020, operating higher than Starlink’s current network at 1,300 kilometers. SpaceX currently operates more than 1,600 Starlink satellites at about 550-kilometers, where it is licensed to deploy around 4,400 in total.
- According to Viasat, decisions made by the FCC’s Rural Broadband Auctions Task Force, Office of Economics and Analytics and Wireline Competition Bureau “improperly discriminate against Viasat and treat it in a fundamentally different fashion than” SpaceX.
- In a June 1 letter to FCC acting chair Jessica Rosenworcel, Viasat added that “this disparate treatment has continued after the end of” RDOF’s Phase 1 auction.
- “Among other things, the Bureaus have suggested that there is an overarching need for transparency with respect to the Commission’s ongoing review of whether Viasat was in fact eligible to participate in Auction 904 and ultimately win RDOF support,” it wrote.
- In a separate document filed with the FCC June 1, Viasat detailed analysis it says shows Starlink will be unable to meet the coverage and capacity commitments that SpaceX made to secure RDOF funding.
- Viasat cited suggestions from SpaceX that technological advances will enable it to overcome any issue, but said relying on unproven upgrades conflicts with the FCC’s RDOF framework.
- SpaceX was unable to comment before this article was published.
- SpaceX’s share of the $9.2 billion awarded in total under RDOF’s Phase 1 auction was one of the largest among 180 successful bidders. Hughes Network Systems was the only other satellite provider to win funds from the auction, securing under $1.3 million.
- RDOF Phase 1 subsidies will be distributed to successful bidders over the next 10 years to connect around 5.2 million unserved homes and businesses with broadband in rural parts of the United States. Under SpaceX’s Phase 1 commitments, Starlink has to provide high-speed internet services to nearly 643,000 homes and businesses in 35 states.
- “We believe the FCC did not act in complete transparency or fairness and applied fundamentally different standards to similarly situated satellite operators,” John Janka, Viasat’s chief officer of government and regulatory affairs, said in an emailed statement.
- “We think it is reasonable to expect U.S. government agencies to uphold the highest principles and, to ensure parity in competition — especially in connection with a program that will distribute billions of taxpayer dollars.”
Stopping on environmental grounds
- Viasat is set to head to court June 2 in an effort to stop SpaceX from launching more Starlink satellites on environmental grounds.
- The Carlsbad, California-based company recently gave the FCC until the end of June 1 to stay an April 27 license modification, which has been enabling SpaceX to continue building out the constellation at an altitude of around 550-kilometers.
- If the FCC does not grant a stay order, Viasat intends to seek one from the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
- That is the same court where Viasat intends to argue that the FCC was legally obligated to thoroughly assess Starlink’s environmental impact before approving the license modification.
- If the FCC does not grant a stay order, Viasat intends to seek one from the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
- That is the same court where Viasat intends to argue that the FCC was legally obligated to thoroughly assess Starlink’s environmental impact before approving the license modification.
- Five days after Viasat called on the FCC May 21 to stay Starlink’s license modification, SpaceX launched another batch of 60 satellites to expand the constellation at 550-kilometers.
- Before the modification, SpaceX was only permitted to operate 1,584 satellites at 550-kilometers, with permission for 2,825 more in orbits of 1,100 to 1,300-kilometers.
- The modification reduces Starlink’s signal lag for video calls, gaming and other latency-critical applications because there is less distance between the satellites in space and antennas on the ground.
• April 27, 2021: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved a modification of SpaceX’s license for its Starlink constellation, allowing the company to operate more than 2,800 additional satellites in lower orbits. 6)
- In an order and authorization published April 27, the FCC said it will allow SpaceX to move 2,814 satellites from orbits in the range of 1,100 to 1,300 kilometers to 540 to 570 kilometers. That is the same orbital range that the company is using for its current constellation of about 1,350 satellites in operation today.
- The agency rejected efforts by several companies, including others planning low Earth orbit constellations and those operating geostationary satellite systems, to block the modification or force SpaceX to be considered in a new round of proposed systems, losing its priority.
- “Our action will allow SpaceX to implement safety-focused changes to the deployment of its satellite constellation to deliver broadband service throughout the United States, including to those who live in areas underserved or unserved by terrestrial systems,” the FCC said.
- Under the approval, the size of the Starlink constellation will decrease by one satellite, from 4,409 to 4,408. That includes the 1,584 satellites previously authorized to operate at orbits of 550 kilometers at inclinations of 53 degrees, and 10 authorized in January to operate in polar orbits. They will be joined by 2,814 satellites, previously approved for higher orbits, operating at inclinations of 53.2, 70 and 97.6 degrees and at latitudes between 540 and 570 kilometers.
- The FCC, by and large, rejected those claims. “Based on our review, we agree with SpaceX that the modification will improve the experience for users of the SpaceX service, including in often-underserved polar regions,” the order states. “We conclude that operations at the lower altitude will have beneficial effects with respect to orbital debris mitigation. We also find that SpaceX’s modification will not present significant interference problems, as assessed under Commission precedent.”
- In particular, it concluded that allowing SpaceX to operate more satellites in that lower orbit would not, in the aggregate, harm the orbital environment. Some companies, such as Viasat, had argued that Starlink satellites suffered a high failure rate that threatened to increase the risk of collisions in LEO.
- “SpaceX’s satellite failure rate is a matter of significant contention in the record,” the FCC noted, alluding to back-and-forth filings on the issue in recent months by SpaceX, Viasat and others. The FCC noted that, according to SpaceX, the company had suffered a “disposal failure rate” of 1.45%, and that 720 of the last 723 satellites launched (as of mid-February 2021) were maneuverable after launch.
- FCC said that “it will be important for SpaceX to maintain a high disposal reliability rate for its satellites in order to limit collision risk.” As a condition of the modified license, SpaceX must file semiannual reports on the number of “conjunction events” and those that required a maneuver to avoid a collision, as well as satellites that the company has disposed. SpaceX would also have to file reports if there are three or more disposal failures in any one-year period.
- The order requires SpaceX to operate its Starlink satellites at altitudes no higher than 580 kilometers. That was a condition requested by Amazon to avoid close approaches to its Project Kuiper satellites, and one SpaceX had stated in filings that it would accept.
- The FCC, as part of the order, also rejected requests that the agency perform an environmental assessment as part of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Some astronomers had also proposed that Starlink be subject to an environmental assessment, or EA, because of the impacts that the satellites have on astronomical observations.
- The FCC concluded that “the issues raised in the filings do not warrant preparation” of an environmental assessment. It offered several reasons for rejecting those requests, from the fact that the Federal Aviation Administration does its own environmental assessments for launches of Starlink satellites to “whether NEPA covers sunlight as a source of ‘light pollution’ when reflecting on a surface that is in space.”
- However, the FCC urged SpaceX to continue to work closely with astronomers to mitigate the brightness of its satellites. “Although we do not find that the record before us merits preparation of an EA under NEPA, we conclude that it nonetheless would serve the public interest under the Communications Act for SpaceX to ensure that it does not unduly burden astronomy and other research endeavors,” it stated. “Accordingly, we will continue to monitor this situation and SpaceX’s efforts to achieve its commitments in this record.”
- Viasat, which strongly opposed the SpaceX modification request, had a mixed reaction to the FCC decision. “We are pleased the Commission confirmed that Starlink satellites must be reliable and safe, and also recognized the need to assess the cumulative (aggregate) collision risk presented by the entire Starlink constellation,” John Janka, chief officer for global regulatory and government affairs at Viasat, said in a statement to SpaceNews.
- “We are disappointed that the Commission failed to fulfill its statutory obligations under NEPA and did not follow the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to a science-based approach to protecting the atmosphere, the Earth’s climate, space, the well-being of U.S. citizens, and critical research that relies upon radio and optical astronomy,” he added.
- “This is a positive outcome that places clear conditions on SpaceX, including requirements that it remain below 580 km and accept additional interference resulting from its redesign,” an Amazon spokesperson told SpaceNews. “These conditions address our primary concerns regarding space safety and interference, and we appreciate the Commission’s work to maintain a safe and competitive environment in low earth orbit.”
- SpaceX did not issue a statement about the FCC’s decision, but in a tweet, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk called the FCC “fair & sensible.”
• April 15, 2021: SpaceX has added more than $300 million to a fundraising round announced earlier this year to support continued work on its Starship launch system and Starlink satellite constellation. 7)
Figure 3: SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said April 14 that she expects the company’s Starship vehicle to be carrying “large numbers of people” to space, including to the moon, within five years (image credit: SpaceNews/Brian Berger)
- In an amended filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission April 14, the company revised a filing in February that disclosed raising $850 million. The company says it has now raised $1.164 billion.
- The company didn’t provide details on the source of the additional $314 million. The filing stated that 99 investors participated in the round, compared to 69 in its February filing about the round. The filing also didn’t disclose terms of the financing, although reports in February indicated that new round valued SpaceX at $74 billion, a significant increase over earlier round.
- SpaceX raised $1.9 billion in its previous funding round in August 2020. It has raised more than $6 billion in equity to date.
- Much of that investment has gone to support two high-profile, and high-expense, projects SpaceX is pursuing. One is the Starlink constellation of broadband internet satellites the company is currently deploying, with about 1,350 satellites currently operational.
- In an April 14 talk at the SpaceTech conference by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, reiterated comments she made earlier this month that the company will soon have enough satellites in orbit to provide global coverage.
- “With Starlink, we anticipate having full global connectivity, consistent global connectivity, a few months after our 28th launch,” she said, a milestone she anticipated reaching “late this year.” An April 7 launch was the 23rd of the company’s v1.0 Starlink satellites. “We will continue to add capacity with additional satellites after that. We will continue to improve our technology, and basically get more beams on the ground.”
- A third generation of laser intersatellite links will start flying “in the next few months,” she said. She didn’t elaborate on those plans, but it’s likely those will be included on satellite the company is preparing to launch to polar orbits. The new technology, she said, will be able to operate over longer distances and provide high bandwidth, while being “much less expensive” than earlier versions.
- SpaceX’s other capital-intensive project is its Starship launch system. The company has flown, and destroyed, four Starship prototypes on suborbital test flights in recent months, most recently March 30. A new Starship prototype, SN15, recently arrived on the launch pad at SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas, test site for a flight test that could happen as soon as late this month.
- “Starship is an amazing machine. I could not be more excited about a vehicle than I am about Starship,” Shotwell. “That is the vehicle that will take people in great numbers to the moon, to Mars.”
- Despite a test campaign that has so far been filled with vehicle explosions, she remained optimistic that the vehicle will be ready to fly people within several years. “I believe we will be flying large numbers of people on Starship in five years,” she said, including point-to-point transportation between two locations on Earth, a concept SpaceX first discussed in 2017.
- Asked by Dava Newman, an MIT professor and former NASA deputy administrator, if that meant SpaceX would be ready to send people to Mars by 2030 to 2035, Shotwell offered a more aggressive schedule. “We’re shooting for before 2030. It might end up taking that long, but I hope not,” Shotwell said.
- That timeline, she said, was based on the experience she expected the company to build up flying people on point-to-point and lunar Starship missions. “You’re flying enough where you hopefully have enough knowledge of the system and knowledge of risk that you can definitely start the journey to Mars within the next five years.”
- “I recognize,” she added, “we never make our timelines, so they’re aspirational. But you have to aim high.”
• March 18, 2021: NASA and SpaceX have signed a joint agreement to formalize both parties’ strong interest in the sharing of information to maintain and improve space safety. This agreement enables a deeper level of coordination, cooperation, and data sharing, and defines the arrangement, responsibilities, and procedures for flight safety coordination. The focus of the agreement is on conjunction avoidance and launch collision avoidance between NASA spacecraft and the large constellation of SpaceX Starlink satellites, as well as related rideshare missions. A conjunction is defined as a close approach between two objects in space, usually at very high speed. 8)
- “Society depends on space-based capabilities for global communications, navigation, weather forecasting, and much more,” said acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk. “With commercial companies launching more and more satellites, it’s critical we increase communications, exchange data, and establish best practices to ensure we all maintain a safe space environment.”
- The Starlink spacecraft are equipped with global navigation satellite service receivers to estimate orbital parameters, an ion propulsion system, and an autonomous maneuvering capability that provide data for prompt and proactive exchange of information. Both NASA and SpaceX benefit from this enhanced interaction by ensuring all parties involved are fully aware of the exact location of spacecraft and debris in orbit.
- SpaceX has agreed its Starlink satellites will autonomously or manually maneuver to ensure the missions of NASA science satellites and other assets can operate uninterrupted from a collision avoidance perspective. Unless otherwise informed by SpaceX, NASA has agreed to not maneuver its assets in the event of a potential conjunction to ensure the parties do not inadvertently maneuver into one another.
- NASA and the Department of Defense have decades of experience in proactively managing collision risks, as well as potential impacts. Effective mitigation relies on inter-operator coordination, accurate data, a sound technical basis for risk analysis, as well as proactive processes for appropriate actions to mitigate risks. By working together through this agreement, the approach to collision avoidance can be improved for all users.
- In addition to this agreement, NASA is supporting growth in the U.S. commercial space sector through the release of the “Spacecraft Conjunction Assessment and Collision Avoidance Best Practices Handbook,” which the agency issued in December 2020 to improve global awareness of space activity and to share NASA lessons learned regarding close approach coordination and mitigation. The handbook is available at: https://go.nasa.gov/34f9ijM
• October 27, 2020: SpaceX has launched public beta testing of its Starlink communications satellite program that aims deliver high-speed Internet globally, particularly in underserved areas. 9)
- The initial Starlink service is called "Better Than Nothing Beta," according to multiple screenshots of an email, CNBC (Consumer News and Business Channel) reported.
- Joining the public beta test costs $99 a month on top of a $499 upfront cost for the ground equipment, which includes a user terminal to connect to the satellites, a mounting tripod and a Wi-Fi router.
- SpaceX also has a Starlink app listed on the Google Play and Apple iOS app stores, which helps users set up their systems and allows them to search areas of the sky for unobstructed views.
- "As you can tell from the title, we are trying to lower your initial expectations," the Starlink Team signed email said. "Expect to see data speeds vary from 50 Mb/s to 150 Mb/s and latency from 20 ms to 40 ms over the next several months as we enhance the Starlink system. There will also be brief periods of no connectivity at all."
- SpaceX said that "nearly 700,000" individuals across the United States had expressed interest in potentially subscribing to the service.
- "Under Starlink's Better Than Nothing Beta program, initial service is targeted for the U.S. and Canada in 2020, rapidly expanding to near global coverage of the populated world by 2021," SpaceX said in the description of its Starlink mobile app.
- The company rolled out private beta testing over the summer for which users had to agree to keep their experience confidential.
- "You may NOT discuss your participation in the Beta Program online or with those outside or your household, unless they are SpaceX employees," the Starlink website said.
- SpaceX said the network will cost about $10 billion or more to build, but the company's leadership estimates that it could bring in up to $30 billion a year, which is more than 10 times the annual revenue of its rocket business.
- On Saturday (24 October 2020), SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket into space, carrying 60 Internet satellites into orbit to help establish connections to remote areas.
- Earlier this month, Musk tweeted that Starlink's constellation had grown large enough to begin beta-testing the Internet service system in the United States and southern Canada.
- The company has launched nearly 900 Starlink satellites to date, which is only a fraction of what's needed for global coverage, but enough to provide service in some areas.
• October 21, 2020: Microsoft and SpaceX announced a partnership Tuesday that would marry the tech leader's Azure computing system with space company's Starlink satellite Internet service. 10)
- Through Starlink, SpaceX plans to use thousands of satellites that would provide high-speed Internet anywhere on Earth. Microsoft's Azure would connect those satellite to the cloud storage.
- "The collaboration that we're announcing will allow us to work together to deliver new offerings for both the public and the private sector to deliver connectivity through Starlink for use on Azure," SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said in a video. "Where it makes sense, we will work with [Microsoft]: co-selling to our mutual customers, co-selling to new enterprise and future customers."
- Tom Keane, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Azure Global, said with the space community rapidly growing, new technologies have made connectivity and computing in space more attainable for private and public entities. He said such innovations can be used to benefit a wide range of fields from agriculture, energy, telecommunications and government.
- The partnership allows Microsoft to go head-to-head with Amazon and Starlink challenger Kuiper. That pairing would allow the e-commerce giant's AWS cloud to use satellites, as well.
- The Microsoft-SpaceX partnership will connect Starlink's network to Microsoft data centers around the world. Microsoft said it will mostly be used for customers "who need cloud computing capabilities in hybrid or challenging environments, including remote areas."
- "Resilient satellite communications, coupled with Azure's ability to provide high-performance computing, machine learning and data analytics opens many new opportunities for both public- and private-sector organizations," Keane said.
- "Our partnership approach to satellite communication solutions helps us bring these capabilities to customers faster to help solve their mission-critical space needs," he said.
- SpaceX recently came from the successful launch of its sixth batch of Starlink satellites. It is part of the company’s impressive project to deliver high-speed internet from space.
- Recently, the company was able to secure a key government license to begin rolling out another important feature of its Starlink project. According to federal documents filed by the company, the FCC has given SpaceX approval release about a million antennas that are designed to work with the Starlink satellites.
- According to the company, the antennas are designed to connect users to SpaceX’s network of satellites. Measuring at about 19 inches across, Musk noted that the antennas look like small UFOs. The SpaceX founder also said these devices are very easy to install and use.
- “It looks like a UFO on a stick,” he said according to CNBC. “It’s very important that you don’t need a specialist to install. The goal is for ... just two instructions and they can be done in either order: Point at sky, plug in.”
- SpaceX’s first batch of Starlink satellites was official deployed in May last year. Since then, the company has been regularly carrying out launches for new batches of satellites. Currently, there around 360 Starlink units operating in low-Earth orbit. The launch for the next batch of satellites is scheduled to take place next month.
- Originally, SpaceX planned to deploy a total of 12,000 satellites for its Starlink project. However, documents filed by the company last year revealed that SpaceX was planning to launch an additional 30,000 satellites. Once completed, the entire project could be comprised of about 42,000 satellites.
- As noted by the company, the massive satellite constellation will enable telecommunication companies to provide internet services to customers residing in remote and hard-to-reach regions in different parts of the globe.
- “With performance that far surpasses that of traditional satellite internet, and a global network unbounded by ground infrastructure limitations, Starlink will deliver high-speed broadband internet to locations where access has been unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable,” SpaceX explained in a statement.
• January 17, 2020: SpaceX plans to launch its next group of Starlink broadband satellites aboard a Falcon 9 rocket as soon as Tuesday, Jan. 21, from Cape Canaveral, two days after the company is scheduled to launch a modified Falcon 9 booster from a separate facility at the Florida spaceport to test the Crew Dragon spaceship’s emergency escape system. 12)
- SpaceX’s ability to achieve back-to-back launch schedule hinges on several factors, including an expected test-firing in the coming days of the Falcon 9 booster slated to fly on the next Starlink launch.
- The Starlink mission — SpaceX’s fourth launch dedicated to the broadband network — was previously scheduled for Monday, Jan. 20. But sources said Friday the launch was pushed back to Jan. 21.
• January 8, 2020: SpaceX says it’s committed to working with the astronomy community to address the brightness of its Starlink satellites, but some astronomers remain concerned about the deleterious effect that system and other megaconstellations will have on their field. 13)
- One of the 60 satellites in the latest Starlink launch Jan. 6 featured an experimental coating intended to reduce its brightness. SpaceX said it will see in the coming weeks how well those coatings work, as well as study any effects they have on the performance of the satellite itself, before deciding how to move forward.
- “Our level of brightness and visibility was a surprise to us,” said Patricia Cooper, vice president of satellite government affairs for SpaceX, during a Jan. 8 special session on the topic of megaconstellation effects on astronomy during the 235th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Honolulu. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell also said last month that SpaceX was surprised by the brightness of the satellites.
- Cooper said that brightness is affected by several issues. The Starlink satellites initially appear bright when released in a lower parking orbit, and the configuration of each satellites’ single large solar array when raising its orbit can also influence its brightness. Once in a final operating orbit of 550 kilometers, the spacecraft brightness decreases to a visual magnitude of about five, making them visible to the naked eye only in darker night skies.
- One challenge, she said, is the unique design of the satellite made it difficult to determine exactly what causes the spacecraft to reflect so much light. “It turns out, we think, that surfaces that scatter light, or reflect light diffusely, are also significant contributors,” she said. That led to the testing of surfaces on the experimental satellite, nicknamed “DarkSat” by some, to reduce that reflectivity.
- Cooper said that SpaceX would work quickly to reduce the brightness of its satellites, but didn’t give a specific timetable or state if other experimental satellites are in the works. In the meantime, the company will continue to launch the original design of Starlink satellites that are designed to be operational for five years, a plan that some astronomers at the meeting criticized.
- “We don’t know yet if these mitigations are useful and effective,” she said. “We tend to work very quickly. We tend to test, learn and iterate.”
- SpaceX has been meeting with a committee of the AAS to discuss the astronomy community’s concerns about Starlink and to examine ways to mitigate them. That work has included a half-dozen teleconferences and an in-person meeting during this AAS conference, said Jeff Hall, director of Lowell Observatory and chair of the AAS committee.
- “We have not had to cajole SpaceX in any way. They’ve been very receptive and very proactive,” he said. Those discussions, he said, initially focused on SpaceX’s Starlink deployment plans, but more recently have been more just “keeping in touch” as SpaceX prepared to launch its experimental DarkSat.
- Hall added that it was premature to discuss regulations regarding satellite brightness. “Regulation of the Wild West up there is necessary, but that is going to take a great deal of time to implement,” he said, while the problem posed by Starlink and other constellations is a near-term issue that needs to be addressed now.
- Hall added that it was premature to discuss regulations regarding satellite brightness. “Regulation of the Wild West up there is necessary, but that is going to take a great deal of time to implement,” he said, while the problem posed by Starlink and other constellations is a near-term issue that needs to be addressed now.
- Hall and other astronomers said that, like SpaceX, they were surprised by how bright the Starlink satellites appeared. “What surprised everyone — the astronomy community and SpaceX — was how bright their satellites are,” Seitzer said. “We knew these tens of thousands of megaconstellations were coming, but based on the sizes and shapes of things currently in orbit, I thought they’d be maybe eighth or ninth magnitude. We were not expecting second or third magnitude.”
- Both astronomers and SpaceX said they hope, as an initial step to get the Starlink satellites dim enough to not be visible to the naked eye even in the darkest skies. The next step will be to figure out what else can be done to mitigate their effects on major observatories, specifically the Vera Rubin Observatory (formerly Large Synoptic Survey Telescope) under construction in Chile. Astronomers said that wide-field telescope was particularly threatened by Starlink and other megaconstellation satellites.
- Hall said his AAS committee plans to start discussions with OneWeb later this month, shortly before the company begins full-scale deployment of its constellation. Six OneWeb demonstration satellites are currently in orbit, at altitudes higher than SpaceX. Seitzer said the satellites, at about eighth magnitude, are too dim to be seen by the naked eye, but pose in some cases greater concerns to professional astronomers than Starlink satellites because, at their altitudes, they may be visible all night during the summer, rather than just around sunset and sunrise.
- With SpaceX seeking to deploy up to 1,500 Starlink satellites in 2020 alone, and with OneWeb and other constellations under development, astronomers warned this was a major issue to them. “The issue of megaconstellations and astronomy is a serious issue,” Seitzer said. “We have a very short time to deal with this issue.”
Figure 4: SpaceX says it's committed to reducing the brightness of its Starlink satellites, but while it works on that the company will continue to launch unmodified satellites (image credit: SpaceX)
• October 16, 2019: SpaceX wants spectrum access for nearly four times as many satellites as originally planned for its high-speed internet constellation, the company and a UN agency confirmed on 16 October. 14)
- On October 7, the US FCC (Federal Communications Commission) sent the Geneva-based ITU (International Telecommunication Union) 20 filings with each one asking permission for 1,500 satellites, the ITU's Alexandre Vallet, chief of space services department, told AFP (Agence France Presse).
- A SpaceX request for 12,000 satellites had already been approved. This new lot would add 30,000 to the network called Starlink.
- The ITU manages radio spectrum frequencies and satellite orbits around the world. The 20 new filings mentioned by the ITU official can be seen on its website.
- A SpaceX spokeswoman did not directly confirm that number but said the company "is taking steps to responsibly scale Starlink's total network capacity and data density to meet the growth in users' anticipated needs."
- The idea behind Starlink is that the network of mini-satellites will allow fast response time between user and internet provider.
- The grid created by all these satellites will be such that several of them will be in direct sight from any point on Earth.
- It says it will take 24 launches for the rest of the world to be covered.
- To put things into context, there are currently 2,100 active satellites orbiting our planet, out of 23,000 objects recorded. These can be rocket stages, inactive satellites, space junk and other things.
- The prospect of adding another 42,000 satellites to the skies is causing worries for two reasons.
- On one hand, astronomers fear these satellites will get in the way of telescope observations made from Earth.
- When a first group of satellites was launched, many astronomers reported seeing a string of bright lights. SpaceX says it is trying to make the base of the satellites black.
- The second problem is crowding of LEO (Low Earth Orbit), which is up to altitudes of 2,000 km.
- SpaceX has said that three of the first 60 satellites it placed in orbit were out of service a month after being deployed. The company says it has ways of "deorbiting" faulty satellites and keeping them from colliding with other satellites.
- But an incident last month showed these procedures are not yet fully effective.
- ESA (European Space Agency) had to modify the trajectory of its Aeolus satellite to avoid collision with a Starlink orbiter. This is a routine maneuver. However, ESA tried to contact SpaceX and got no answer because the latter did not see the message.
• May 11, 2019: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has published the first official photo of the company’s near-final Starlink design and confirmed that Falcon 9 will launch a staggering 60 satellites into orbit. 15)
- Known internally as Starlink v0.9, this mission will not be the first launch of operational satellites, but it will be the first internal SpaceX mission with a dedicated Falcon 9 launch. Additionally, the payload will be the heaviest yet launched by SpaceX, signifying an extraordinarily ambitious first step towards realizing the company’s ~12,000-satellite Starlink megaconstellation.
- Put simply, SpaceX’s Starlink v0.9 launch is extremely unique for several reasons. Aside from the unprecedented step of launching 60 spacecraft weighing ~13,000 kg on a developmental mission, both the form factor of each satellite and the style of dispenser/payload adapter has never been seen before. SpaceX appears to have settled on a square dispenser with four separate quadrants for satellites. The satellites themselves look truly bizarre – it’s actually difficult to discern where one spacecraft stops and the next begins.
- Nevertheless, it appears that each Starlink satellite is a relatively thin rectangle, possibly with a squared top and bottom. It’s also possible that they are all around rectangular and that the dispenser instead has two main sections. Either way, the very fact that the Starlink v0.9 payload can scarcely be parsed into recognizable satellites is thrilling. Aside from the rise of smallsats and cubesats, satellite design and engineering has been relatively stagnant for decades, particularly with respect to form factors and structural layouts. Most modern satellites are simply squarish boxes with electronics inside and payloads bolted on the outside.
- Despite using the same exact Falcon fairing that has been standard for years, SpaceX has managed to cram 60 spacecraft – each weighing around 227 kg into just the bottom two-thirds of the fairing, leaving a considerable amount of unused volume for future expansion.
- According to President and COO Gwynne Shotwell, Starlink v0.9 satellites are extremely close to SpaceX’s true final design. However, they are still considered by SpaceX to be a “test batch” of satellites and do not have the optical (laser) interlinks that will be a critical part of Starlink’s unique constellation design.
Figure 5: The second phase of Starlink testing – 60 advanced satellites – stacked in a single fairing (image credit: SpaceX)
- The regulatory commission approved SpaceX’s proposal Friday to fly more than 1,500 of its Starlink satellites at an altitude of 550 km, instead of the 1,150 km orbit originally planned.
- “This approval underscores the FCC’s confidence in SpaceX’s plans to deploy its next-generation satellite constellation and connect people around the world with reliable and affordable broadband service,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer. “Starlink production is well underway, and the first group of satellites have already arrived at the launch site for processing.”
• April 8, 2019: SpaceX has announced a launch target of May 2019 for the first batch of operational Starlink satellites in a sign that the proposed internet satellite constellation has reached a major milestone, effectively transitioning from pure research and development to serious manufacturing. 17)
- R&D will continue as SpaceX Starlink engineers work to implement the true final design of the first several hundred or thousand spacecraft, but a significant amount of the team’s work will now be centered on producing as many Starlink satellites as possible, as quickly as possible. With anywhere from 4400 to nearly 12,000 satellites needed to complete the three major proposed phases of Starlink, SpaceX will have to build and launch a minimum of ~2200 satellites in the next five years, averaging 37 high-performance, low-cost spacecraft built and launched every month for the next 60 months.
- Despite the major challenges ahead of SpaceX, things seem to be going quite smoothly with the current mix of manufacturing and development. As previously reported on Teslarati, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk forced the Starlink group through a painful reorganization in the summer of 2018, challenging the remaining leaders and their team to launch the first batch of operational Starlink satellites no later than June 2019. As a consequence, a sort of compromise had to be reached where one additional group of quasi-prototype satellites would be launched before settling on a truly final design for serious mass-production.
- According to SpaceX filings with the FCC, the first group of operational satellites – potentially anywhere from 75 to 1000 or more – will rely on just one band (“Ku”) for communications instead of the nominal two (“Ku” and “Ka”), a change that SpaceX says will significantly simplify the first spacecraft. By simplifying them, SpaceX believes it can expedite Starlink’s initial deployment without losing a great deal of performance or interfering with constellations from competitors like OneWeb.
• On 16 November 2018, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced it had authorized SpaceX to launch 7,518 satellites, adding to 4,425 satellites it has already approved. 18)
- None of the satellites has launched yet. SpaceX has six years to put half in orbit, and nine years to complete the satellite network, according to FCC rules.
• On 1 April 2018, SpaceX received US approval to launch 4,425 LEO (Low Earth Orbit) satellites, a key milestone in its plan to offer broadband with high speeds and low latency around the world. 19) 20)
- The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) issued an order approving SpaceX's application with some conditions. SpaceX intends to start launching operational satellites as early as 2019, with the goal of reaching the full capacity of 4,425 satellites in 2024. The FCC approval just requires SpaceX to launch 50 percent of the satellites by March 2024, and all of them by March 2027.
- "Grant of this application will enable SpaceX to bring high-speed, reliable, and affordable broadband service to consumers in the United States and around the world, including areas underserved or currently unserved by existing networks," the FCC order said.
- SpaceX's network (known as "Starlink") will need separate approval from the ITU (International Telecommunication Union). The FCC said its approval is conditioned on "SpaceX receiving a favorable or 'qualified favorable' rating of its EPFD (Equivalent Power Flux-Density) limits demonstration by the ITU prior to initiation of service." SpaceX will also have to follow other ITU rules.
• February 22, 2018: SpaceX has launched with the debuting of an upgraded payload fairing for the Falcon 9 rocket during Spain’s PAZ satellite lofting from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The launch carried the first two demonstration satellites for SpaceX’s own satellite internet constellation. The launch occurred at an instantaneous launch opportunity at 06:17 Pacific Time (14:17 UTC) on 22 February 2018. 21)
Figure 6: SpaceX’s first two Starlink prototype satellites are pictured here before their inaugural launch, showing off a thoroughly utilitarian bus and several advanced components. They were launched as secondary payloads with the Spanish radar observation satellite (PAZ) on a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. SpaceX called these two prototype Starlink satellites, Tintin-A and Tintin-B (image credit: SpaceX)
The SpaceX launches of the Starlink constellation are presented in reverse order.
- A Falcon 9 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California at 11:55 p.m. EDT on 13 Sept. (03:55 UTC on 14 September). The rocket’s payload of 51 Starlink satellites deployed 15 and a half minutes after launch, although it took an additional 11 minutes to confirm the satellites separated as expected.
Figure 7: A SpaceX Falcon 9 ascends after liftoff from Vandenberg SFB, California, carrying a payload of Starlink satellites (image credit: SpaceX webcast)
- The rocket’s first stage, making its tenth flight, landed on a droneship in the Pacific Ocean nearly nine minutes after liftoff. The booster, the second to have reached the ten-flight milestone, had previously launched seven other Starlink missions as well as the Telstar 18 Vantage and Iridium-8 missions.
- The launch was the first dedicated Starlink launch since May 26, although three Starlink satellites were included on the Transporter-2 rideshare mission that launched June 30. The launch was also the first dedicated launch of Starlink satellites to polar orbit (70º inclination).
- SpaceX blamed the long gap in Starlink launches on delays in completing a new series of satellites that include laser intersatellite links. Those links will minimize the number of ground stations the network needs to provide service in the polar regions and over the oceans.
- Shotwell said that all future Starlink satellites with have laser intersatellite links, a point the company confirmed on the launch webcast. SpaceX also confirmed it’s working on a new version of the Starlink user terminal that will be cheaper and faster for the company to produce.
- Previous Starlink missions to mid-inclination orbits carried 60 satellites, while this mission carried 51. SpaceX didn’t explain if the reduced number of satellites was because of the higher inclination of the mission, increased size or mass of the satellites because of their new crosslinks, or some combination of those factors.
- This launch was the first of two scheduled this week by SpaceX. Another Falcon 9 will launch a Crew Dragon spacecraft on the Inspiration4 private crewed mission, with four people on board. That launch is scheduled for a five-hour window that opens Sept. 15 at 8:02 p.m. Eastern from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
• Launch 29: A SpaceX Falcon 9 launched another set of 60 Starlink satellites on 26 May 2021 at 18:59 UTC (2:59 p.m. EDT) from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The rocket’s upper stage released its payload of 60 Starlink satellites into orbit 64 minutes later. 24)
- The rocket’s first stage landed on a droneship in the Atlantic eight and a half minutes after liftoff. In contrast to some recent Starlink launches, where the Falcon 9 boosters had launched as many as 10 times, this Falcon 9 first stage was on only its second launch, having previously been used to launch the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich ocean science satellite in November 2020.
- SpaceX did set a different kind of reuse milestone on this launch. One of two halves of the payload fairing was on its fifth flight, the first time a payload fairing section had flown five times. The fairing half flew on four previous Starlink launches dating back to 2019. The second fairing half was on its third launch, having been used previously on a Starlink launch and the Transporter-1 rideshare mission in January.
- The launch was also the 40th Falcon 9 mission to fly at least one reused payload fairing half. The company had quietly made regular use of previously flown payload fairings, which deploy parachutes after separation from the rocket’s upper stage and are recovered in the ocean by boats.
- SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said several years ago that the company would attempt to recover and reuse payload fairings because of their expense: about $6 million each. “Imagine if you had $6 million in cash in a pallet flying through the air, and it was going to smash into the ocean. Would you try to recover that? Yes, yes you would,” Musk said in 2017, after the company launched its first reused Falcon 9.
- Unlike the booster landings, which the company broadcasts on its launch webcasts, the fairing recoveries take place out of view. SpaceX would occasionally provide video of attempts to catch the descending fairings in large nets strung above ships, but more recently has moved to simply recovering fairings from the water after splashdown.
- This launch also marked the 100th consecutive successful Falcon 9 launch, a streak that started after a June 2015 launch failure on a NASA commercial cargo mission. That streak does not include the loss of the Amos-6 satellite when a Falcon 9 exploded during preparations for a static-fire test days before its scheduled launch in September 2016.
- The launch brings the total number of Starlink satellites in orbit to 1,664. Viasat filed a motion with the Federal Communications Committee May 21 to stay its approval of a modification of SpaceX’s license that allows the company to increase the number of Starlink satellites it can operate in orbits about 550 kilometers high from 1,584 to 4,408. That would effectively block SpaceX from launching additional satellites until the FCC completed an environmental review of the constellation demanded by Viasat.
- The FCC has not yet acted on the motion, and SpaceX did not mention the dispute in its launch webcast, which instead noted that the company has expanded the beta test of the Starlink service to residents of Belgium and the Netherlands.
• Launch 28: On Saturday, May 15 at 22:56 UTC (6:56 p.m. EDT) a SpaceX Falcon 9 vehicle launched a set of 52 Starlink satellites, the Capella-6 SAR microsatellite, and a Tyvak-0310 nanosatellite (6U CubeSat) from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. 25)
- The rocket’s first stage, making its eighth launch dating back to the Demo-2 commercial mission nearly a year ago, landed on a droneship in the Atlantic. 26)
Figure 8: A Falcon 9 lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center May 15 carrying 52 Starlink satellites and two rideshare payloads (image credit: SpaceX webcast)
- The rocket’s primary payload, 52 Starlink satellites, separated from the rocket’s upper stage 1 hour and 38 minutes after liftoff. The launch brings the total number of Starlink satellites in orbit to more than 1,600. This was the fourth Falcon 9 launch of Starlink satellites in 17 days, and the ninth Falcon 9 launch of Starlink satellites since the beginning of March.
- This launch did not carry the usual complement of 60 Starlink satellites as SpaceX included two rideshare payloads on the rocket that were released from the upper stage about an hour after liftoff. One was the latest in a series of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging satellites for Capella Space. The company launched two other SAR satellites on Transporter-1, a SpaceX Falcon 9 dedicated rideshare mission in January.
- The other was Tyvak-0130, a 6U CubeSat built by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems. Neither Tyvak nor SpaceX disclosed details about the satellite, including basic information such as its size and mission. A September 2019 document by NOAA’s Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs office described Tyvak-0130 as “an optical spectrum astronomy observation satellite” but did not disclose technical details or if the satellite was built for another customer.
- A February 2020 application for a ground station filed with the Federal Communications Commission said that the antenna would be used to communicate with both Tyvak-0130 and Tyvak-0129. The latter is a 6U CubeSat launched in December 2019 designed to test what Tyvak called “next-generation spacecraft systems” it planned to use on future spacecraft.
- SpaceX used the launch webcast to note its May 13 partnership with Google, where SpaceX will collocate ground terminals with Google Cloud data centers. The companies said they would provide new services based on this partnership later this year.
- SpaceX also announced it had started beta testing Starlink in parts of the Netherlands. The company has been gradually expanding the beta test program, recently adding Austria and France.
• Launch 27: On Sunday, May 9 at 6:42 UTC 2021 (2:42 a.m. EDT), Falcon 9 launched 60 Starlink satellites (Starlink V1.0-L27 ) from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. After stage separation, Falcon 9’s first stage returned to Earth and landed on the “Just Read the Instructions” droneship. -The rocket’s upper stage deployed its payload of 60 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit nearly 65 minutes later. 27)
- This was the first Falcon 9 first-stage booster to complete a tenth launch and landing. The first-stage booster previously supported Crew Dragon’s first demonstration mission to the International Space Station, the RADARSAT Constellation Mission, SXM-7 satellite for SiriusXM, and now seven Starlink missions.
Figure 9: Schematic view of the Launch, first-stage Landing, and Deployment of the SpaceX mission phases (image credit: SpaceX)
- The launch, the third in less than two weeks for SpaceX, brings the total number of Starlink satellites in orbit to more than 1,550. The company is gradually expanding its beta test program for the broadband internet service as the constellation grows. SpaceX noted on the launch webcast that it opened up that beta test program in the last week to people in Austria and France. 28)
- SpaceX had long identified 10 flights as a goal for Falcon 9 reuse in order to justify the significant investment the company made into reusability. In recent months, though, company executives have suggested that the booster can fly more than 10 times.
- “There doesn’t seem to be any obvious limit to the reusability of the vehicle,” Elon Musk, chief executive of SpaceX, said at an April 23 NASA press conference after the Crew-2 launch.
- The company has been using its own Starlink missions to push the boundaries of booster reuse. That has uncovered issues, such as a February launch where the Starlink payload reached orbit but the booster failed to land. That booster was making its sixth flight, but some engine components, such as “boots” or covers around the engines, were life leaders. One of those covers had a hole that allowed hot gas from the engine exhaust get into other parts of the engine, triggering a shutdown that prevented the stage from landing.
- “We do intend to fly the Falcon 9 booster until we see some kind of a failure with the Starlink missions, have that be a life-leader,” Musk said at the briefing, noting at the time that a tenth flight of a booster was upcoming. “We’re learning a lot of about reusability. It’s a hard problem for rockets.”
• Launch 26: SpaceX continued the deployment of its Starlink broadband megaconstellation May 4 with the second launch of 60 satellites in less than a week. A Falcon 9 lifted off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A at 19:01 UTC (3:01 p.m. EDT). The rocket’s second stage released its payload of 60 Starlink satellites 64 minutes later. 29)
- The rocket’s first stage landed on the center of a droneship in the Atlantic Ocean, completing its ninth flight. The booster previously launched the Telstar 18 Vantage communications satellite, a set of Iridium satellites, and six other Starlink missions. This is the second booster SpaceX has flown nine times.
- SpaceX had previously suggested Falcon 9 boosters could fly up to 10 times, but more recently indicated those stages could have longer lifetimes. “I don’t think the number 10 is a magic number,” Hans Koenigsmann, senior adviser for build and flight reliability at SpaceX, said in February. Once a booster reaches the 10-flight milestone, “we will continue to look at that booster and make an assessment whether we can move forward with it.”
- That milestone could come soon. The next Falcon 9 Starlink launch, scheduled for no earlier than May 9, is expected to use the other Falcon 9 booster that has flown nine times, most recently in March. The company is using its internal Starlink missions to test the limits of booster reusability.
- “There doesn’t seem to be any obvious limit to the reusability of the vehicle,” Elon Musk, chief executive of SpaceX, said at an April 23 NASA press conference after the Crew-2 launch. “We do intend to fly the Falcon 9 booster until we some kind of a failure with the Starlink missions, have that be a life-leader.”
- This launch comes less than a week after the previous Falcon 9 Starlink launch April 28. Of the 13 Falcon 9 launches so far this year, 10 have been dedicated to Starlink satellites while the eleventh, the Transporter-1 rideshare mission, carried 10 Starlink satellites, bringing the total number of Starlink satellites launched so far in 2021 to 610. Nearly 1,500 Starlink satellites are currently in orbit.
- SpaceX is continuing to build out its Starlink constellation, buoyed by a Federal Communications Commission decision April 27 to approve a license modification sought by SpaceX. That modification will allow SpaceX to operate 2,814 satellites originally planned for orbits between 1,100 and 1,300 kilometers to orbits of 540 to 570 kilometers.
- The Starlink service remains in a beta test phase in the United States and several other countries, although Musk suggested last month that the beta test could end as soon as this summer as the constellation is built out.
- Siva Bharadvaj, the SpaceX engineer who hosted the webcast of this latest launch, said that “over half a million people have placed an order or put down a deposit for Starlink.” He did not disclose how many people are actively using the service, though.
• Launch 25: SpaceX launched another set of Starlink satellites on 29 April 2021 at 03:44 UTC (corresponding to 11:44 p.m. EDT on 28 April), its first since the FCC approved a modification that allows the company to operate more satellites in lower orbits. 30)
Figure 10: A set of Starlink satellites separates from the Falcon 9’s upper stage after its April 28 launch (image credit: SpaceX webcast)
- The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 11:44 p.m. Eastern. The rocket’s upper stage deployed its payload of 60 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit nearly 65 minutes later.
- The launch took place a day after the Federal Communications Commission approved SpaceX’s request to modify its Starlink constellation. The modification will move 2,814 satellites originally approved for launch in orbits of 1,100 to 1,300 km to orbits of 540 to 570 km, similar to the 550-km orbits used by existing Starlink satellites.
- SpaceX did not mention the FCC’s decision in its webcast. However, it did discuss how it chose lower orbits for spaceflight safety, ensuring that satellites will deorbit within several years of the end of their lives. It also mentioned its work with the 18th Space Control Squadron, sharing data on the orbits of Starlink satellites for collision avoidance activities, as well as a recent agreement with NASA to coordinate maneuvers between Starlink and NASA spacecraft in low Earth orbit.
- “We are extremely proud of our efforts to not only provide internet access to the disconnected, but also ensure space remains a place where human spaceflight continues to grow,” Jessie Anderson, host of the webcast, said.
- With this launch, SpaceX has now placed 1,505 Starlink satellites into orbit, of which 1,434 remain in orbit. The company was approaching its previous authorization of 1,584 satellites in 550-km orbits when the FCC approved its license modification to allow more satellites in those lower orbits.
- The Falcon 9’s first stage landed on a droneship in the Atlantic about eight and a half minutes after launch. The booster completed its seventh flight, which included launches of a GPS 3 satellite, the Turksat 5A communications satellite and five Starlink missions.
- Musk’s comments came after the first launch of a reused Falcon 9 first stage on a crewed mission. The Crew-2 launch used the same first stage that flew the Crew-1 mission the previous November.
- Musk said he and NASA have discussed what the optimal number of launches of a booster might be. “Do you want to be on a brand-new booster?” he asked. “You probably don’t want to be on the life leader for a crewed mission, but it’s probably good to have a flight or two under its belt.” He suggested a “couple of flights” might be best for a booster launching a crewed mission.
- “It’s a hard problem for a rocket,” he said of reusability.
- SpaceX also used the launch to honor Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 astronaut who died earlier that day at the age of 90. “Godspeed Apollo 11’s Michael Collins,” the SpaceX launch director said as the rocket lifted off. “May the pursuit of exploration live on.”
• Launch 24: SpaceX continued the rollout of its Starlink broadband constellation with another launch of 60 satellites April 7, edging closer to providing continuous global service. 31)
- A Falcon 9 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 12:34 p.m. EDT (16:34 UTC) on 7 April 2021. The rocket’s upper stage deployed its payload of 60 Starlink satellites into orbit a little more than an hour later.
- The rocket’s first stage landed on a droneship in the Atlantic eight and a half minutes after liftoff. This was the seventh flight for this booster, which first launched the Demo-2 commercial crew mission last May and most recently launched another set of Starlink satellites March 11.
- This was the 10th Falcon 9 launch of the year for SpaceX, eight of which have been dedicated to Starlink satellites. The company now has 1,378 satellites in orbit when accounting for those launched and subsequently deorbited, according to statistics maintained by Jonathan McDowell.
- That constellation is now nearing the size needed to provide at least basic service globally. “We do have global reach, but we don’t have yet have full connectivity globally,” Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, said during an April 6 panel discussion at the Satellite 2021 LEO Digital Forum.
- “We hope after about 28 launches we’ll have continuous coverage throughout the globe,” she added. This launch is the 23rd of v1.0 satellites, although a few v0.9 satellites launched nearly two years ago remain in orbit, along with 10 v1.0 satellites launched into polar orbit on a rideshare mission in January. That suggests the company will reach the continuous coverage milestone after four to five more launches.
- Those launches would push SpaceX against its current FCC authorization, which allows the company to operate up to 1,584 satellites in orbits at approximately 550 km. The company’s current license from the Federal Communications Commission allows it to operate 2,825 additional satellites at altitudes of 1,100 to 1,300 km. SpaceX had filed a request with the FCC to modify that license, moving those additional satellites to 550 km.
- The FCC has yet to rule on that modification, but SpaceX’s current launch rate means the company will hit its current limit of satellites at 550 km within a couple months. Shotwell mentioned during the panel that the company is “bringing our satellites down from our original altitude” to address space sustainability concerns. She did not, though, address the FCC license modification issue beyond saying that the company would continue launching satellites “as we’re allowed.”
- Shotwell said the company would press ahead with Starlink launches even after hitting the threshold of continuous global coverage. “The plan after that is to continue to add satellites to provide additional capacity,” she said. That includes launching additional satellites to polar orbit beginning this summer from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Those polar satellites, she said, will likely include laser intersatellite links that the company has experimented with on a few Starlink satellites.
- The element of the overall Starlink effort that has attracted the most attention is the series of launches that has created the world’s largest satellite constellation in less than two years. That has not necessarily been the biggest challenge for SpaceX, though.
- “The satellites and launch have been pretty straightforward for us. We thought we’d struggle a little bit more on the satellites, but it turns out our Dragon, which is a very sophisticated satellite, helped us tremendously in figuring out the satellite architecture for Starlink,” she said.
- What has been a challenge, she said, is dealing with a growing number of customers and building a reliable network, but “none of which we can’t solve.”
- Another area of effort has been on the ground equipment used by Starlink subscribers, notably the electronically steerable antenna. Shotwell said the company has been working to reduce the cost of that equipment, which is required to win wide-scale adoption.
- “We have made great progress on reducing the cost of our terminal,” she said. That equipment originally cost about $3,000. “We’re less than half of that right now.”
- Customers currently pay about $500 for that equipment, meaning that SpaceX is still significantly subsidizing those terminals. That may change, though, as the company makes continued progress to lower costs. “We do see our terminals coming in the few-hundred-dollar range within the next year or two.”
- Shotwell appeared on a panel with executives of several other satellite operators, many of whom argued that hybrid systems that use satellites in low and medium Earth orbits as well as geostationary orbit, or GEO satellites alone, offer better solutions. “We see absolutely no way, no possibility, that those low-orbit constellations can fulfill the latent demand of all the unserved population today,” said Rodolphe Belmer, chief executive of Eutelsat.
- As Belmer and other executives on the panel expressed their reservations about LEO constellations, Shotwell smiled. “I just always smile, by the way, when people make projections about what can and can’t be done with technology,” she said. “I don’t think we have any idea how technology can evolve five years from now.”
• Launch 23: A SpaceX Falcon 9 launched another set of Starlink satellites 24 March 2021, 15 years to the day after the company’s first, unsuccessful launch. 32)
- The Falcon 9 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 08:28 UTC (4:28 a.m. EDT). The rocket’s upper stage deployed its payload of 60 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit 64 minutes later.
- The rocket’s first stage, on its sixth flight, landed on a droneship in the Atlantic Ocean eight and a half minutes after liftoff. That booster, which first launched last June carrying a GPS satellite, also launched Turksat 5A in January as well as three other Starlink missions.
- This launch, by coincidence, took place exactly 15 years after SpaceX conducted the first launch of its Falcon 1 rocket from Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. That March 24, 2006, launch was unsuccessful, as the first stage’s single engine failed about half a minute after liftoff.
- Two subsequent Falcon 1 launches also failed before the fourth Falcon 1 launch, carrying a test payload, reached orbit in September 2008. The Falcon 1 flew one more mission in 2009 before SpaceX retired the vehicle in favor of the far larger Falcon 9, which has become the company’s workhorse with more than 110 launches since its introduction in 2010.
- This launch was the ninth Falcon 9 mission of 2021 and the fourth this month. Seven of those nine launches, including all four in March, have been dedicated to Starlink, increasing the size of the constellation to more than 1,300 satellites.
Growing capacity and international expansion
- The growth of that constellation has been enabled by both the high launch cadence of the Falcon 9 and mass production of satellites. “We’re currently building roughly six satellites a day at our factory in Seattle, which is pretty remarkable,” Jonathan Hofeller, SpaceX vice president for Starlink, said at Spacetide, a Japanese space business conference, held online March 23. He said the company has maintained that production rate for about a year so far.
- The satellites launched to date, he said, are all first-generation, or “Gen 1,” spacecraft. “We’re already working on the Gen 2 constellation,” he said. “These satellites will be continuously refreshed as we continue to increase both the network capacity and the density by orders of magnitude. We’re excited to be able to eventually provide a lot more internet than we’re even doing now.” He didn’t disclose additional details about the Gen 2 satellites or their schedule.
- SpaceX plans to have global coverage for Starlink by the end of this year. However, as the company expands beta tests in the United States and several other countries, Hofeller noted that the satellite constellation alone is just one element of that rollout. Other key factors include establishing ground stations to serve as gateways as well as the regulatory process, which varies from country to country.
- That regulatory process, he said, can be “very challenging” as the company explains its system to national regulators. “That process just takes a while.”
- Japan, he suggested, is one the countries where that regulatory process is stretched out. Hofeller said the company identified Japan as a country where it wanted to provide service relatively early, and thanked those who have advocated for Starlink to Japanese regulators. “Anything they can do to speed up the regulatory process will be greatly appreciated,” he said, projecting that Starlink service could begin in Japan “as soon as the very end of this year.”
- “We are a rocket company,” he said. “As we grow the capacity, it could be inevitable that we have partners globally.”
• Launch 22: A Falcon 9 launched another set of 60 Starlink satellites March 14, 2021, with the rocket’s first stage setting a record with its ninth launch and landing. 33)
- The Falcon 9 lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at 6:01 a.m. EST (10:01 UTC) . The upper stage deployed its payload of 60 Starlink satellites into orbit 65 minutes later, bringing the size of the broadband internet constellation to 1,260 satellites.
- The launch was the eighth for the Falcon 9 this year, and took place a little more than 72 hours after another Falcon 9 launch of Starlink satellites. Six of the eight Falcon 9 launches this year have been dedicated to Starlink, and one of the other two, the Transporter-1 dedicated rideshare flight, also carried 10 Starlink satellites.
- The rocket’s first stage landed on a droneship in the Atlantic Ocean eight and a half minutes after liftoff. That booster was on its ninth flight, a record for the Falcon 9. The rocket, which first launched a Crew Dragon spacecraft on the uncrewed Demo-1 mission in March 2019, later launched the RADARSAT Constellation Mission and the SXM-7 satellite for SiriusXM. It launched five Starlink missions before this one, including the booster’s previous flight Jan. 20.
- The booster is now approaching the goal SpaceX set of being able to fly 10 times. However, one company official recently said it may be possible to exceed that goal.
- “We’re learning a lot about refurbishment and we’re learning where the areas are where we need to pay attention to,” said Hans Koenigsmann, senior adviser for build and flight reliability at SpaceX, during a panel discussion at the 47th Spaceport Summit last month. Those areas that require special attention include the booster’s heat shield and engine components. “We’ve been learning with every single landing.”
- Some of those lessons have been hard ones. One booster failed to land after a Feb. 15 launch, breaking a streak of successful landings lasting nearly a year. The company later said an engine shut down during flight when hot gas got through a hole in an engine cover that was a “life leader” in the Falcon 9 fleet, with more launches than any others in the Falcon 9 fleet. The shutdown meant the booster did not have enough thrust for a landing on a droneship.
- “The more you fly, the more you learn,” Benji Reed, senior director for human spaceflight programs at SpaceX, said of the failed landing at a March 1 briefing about the upcoming NASA Crew-2 commercial crew mission. “That’s a great lesson that we learned from these very long life leader components and vehicles.” Those lessons, he said, included revised plans to inspect and replace components.
- Once a booster reaches the milestone of 10 flights, “we will continue to look at that booster and make an assessment whether we can move forward with it,” Koenigsmann said. He suggested the booster may be able to continue to operate, perhaps after replacing some components that wear out. “I don’t think the number 10 is a magic number.”
• Launch 21: A SpaceX Falcon 9 launched another set of 60 Starlink satellites March 11, 2021 (08:13 UTC) as the company expanded international service in several countries. 34)
- The Falcon 9 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 3:13 a.m. EST. The rocket’s upper stage deployed its payload of 60 Starlink satellites 65 minutes after liftoff.
- The rocket’s first stage successfully landed on a droneship eight and a half minutes after liftoff. That booster was on its sixth flight, having previously flown missions ranging from the Demo-2 commercial crew test flight in May 2020 to, most recently, the Transporter-1 rideshare mission on 24 January 2021.
Figure 11: A Falcon 9 launch March 11 brought the total number of Starlink satellites in orbit to 1,200 (image credit: SpaceX webcast)
- SpaceX now has 1,200 Starlink satellites in orbit, having launched 310 of them this year alone. Five of SpaceX’s seven Falcon 9 missions in 2021 have been dedicated for Starlink, with the other two launching Transporter-1 and the TurkSat-5A geostationary communications satellite. The Transporter-1 launch included 10 Starlink satellites, the first deployed into polar orbit.
- As SpaceX expands the Starlink satellite constellation, the company is also expanding the coverage for its ongoing beta test of the broadband internet service those satellites provide. The company originally limited the beta test to the northern tier of the continental United States, later expanding it to include southern Canada and parts of the United Kingdom.
- During the webcast for this Starlink launch, the company said it is now expanding its service in the U.K., which had been limited to southern England, to the rest of England, Scotland and Wales. SpaceX is also starting service in western Germany and the South Island of New Zealand, with plans to expand in both countries in the coming weeks.
- SpaceX has kept expectations low for the beta test, called “Better Than Nothing” by the company, with average speeds of 50 to 150 Mbit/s and occasional outages. In online forums, though, some users have reported much higher speeds at times, exceeding 300 Mbit/s, but still with intermittent outages.
• Launch 20: Launching through a blanket of low-hanging clouds and light mist, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket thundered into the sky over Florida’s Space Coast early Thursday and delivered 60 more Starlink internet satellites to orbit. The rocket’s first stage touched down on SpaceX’s floating landing platform in the Atlantic Ocean to complete its eighth trip to space and back. 35)
Figure 12: A Falcon 9 rocket disappears in a blanket of clouds shortly after launching from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center early Thursday. (image credit: SpaceX)
- On March 4, 2021, a Falcon 9 rocket of SpaceX lifted off from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at 3:24:54 a.m. EST (08:24:54 GMT). Arcing toward the northeast, the Falcon 9 exceeded the speed of sound and dropped its first stage booster about two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff. A single Merlin engine on the upper stage ignited to continue the flight into space, while the first stage descended to a propulsive landing on the drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” positioned about 400 miles (630 km) downrange from Cape Canaveral.
- The successful landing marked the 75th intact recovery of a Falcon rocket booster since December 2015. The booster on Thursday mission — designated B1049 — made its eighth launch and landing after debuting in September 2018, tying another first stage for the most number of flights in SpaceX’s fleet.
- After reaching a preliminary parking orbit, the upper stage coasted halfway around the world before firing its engine again for a one-second orbit adjustment burn over the Indian Ocean. The 60 Starlink satellites deployed from the Falcon 9’s upper stage at 4:29 a.m. EST (09:29 GMT) while flying 172 miles (278 km) above Earth just south of New Zealand.
- The on-target launch came after a series of delays kept the mission grounded since late January. The delays were caused by weather and unspecified technical issues, and two other Falcon 9 missions with Starlink satellites took off from nearby pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station while the flight from pad 39A stayed earthbound.
- The change in the order of missions meant the batch launched Thursday was on the 20th Falcon 9 flight dedicated to carrying Starlink satellites, despite its designation on the military-run Eastern Range as Starlink V1.0-L17. Launches No. 18 and 19 ended up flying before No. 17.
- The 60 Starlink satellites, each weighing about a quarter-ton, will unfurl their solar panels and switch on ion krypton thrusters to begin raising their altitude to 341 miles (550 km) in the coming weeks. At that altitude, the satellites will join more than 1,000 active Starlink satellites flying in orbits inclined 53 degrees to the equator, taking them above nearly all of the world’s populated regions.
- SpaceX has launched 1,205 Starlink satellites to date with the 60 fresh relay stations delivered to orbit Thursday. But 63 of the Starlinks have been intentionally deorbited or re-entered the atmosphere after failing, and another 20 are not maneuvering or appear to be in the process of deorbiting, according to a tally of Starlink satellites from Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer and respected tracker of spaceflight activity.
- SpaceX is well on the way to finish deployment of its initial tranche of 1,584 Starlink stations — including spares — later this year. SpaceX won’t stop there, with plans to launch additional orbital “shells” of Starlink satellites into polar orbit to enable global coverage, with a first-generation fleet totaling some 4,400 spacecraft.
- The Federal Communications Commission has authorized SpaceX to eventually operate up to 12,000 Starlink satellites.
- The company is already providing an interim level of service over parts of the Earth, such as Canada, northern parts of the United States, and the United Kingdom. Beta testing of the Starlink services is already underway with users in those regions. SpaceX is also accepting pre-orders from Starlink consumers, who can pay $99 to reserve their place in line to get Starlink service when it becomes available in their area. For people in the southern United States and other lower-latitude regions, that should come by late 2021, SpaceX says.
- Once confirmed, customers will pay $499 for a Starlink antenna and modem, plus $50 in shipping and handling, SpaceX says. A subscription will run $99 per month.
• Launch 19: SpaceX successfully launched another Falcon 9 rocket carrying a set of 60 Starlink V1.0 minisatellites into space on 16 February 2021 (03:59 UTC, corresponding to 10:59 p.m. EST on 15 February) from Cape Canaveral SLC-40. The SpaceX rocket released its payload of 60 Starlink satellites in orbit 65 minutes after liftoff. 36)
Figure 13: A set of 60 Starlink satellites deploys from the upper stage of its Falcon 9 rocket to conclude a Feb. 15 launch (image credit: SpaceX webcast)
- This time around, the rocket's first stage suffered a rare failed landing. The first stage did not land on a droneship in the Atlantic Ocean as planned. Video from the droneship around the time of landing showed a glow in the distance, suggesting a problem with the booster that either caused it to go off-course or to deliberately divert from the landing attempt. SpaceX did not immediately disclose what took place during the failed landing.
- The failure broke a streak of 24 consecutive Falcon 9 launches with successful landings, either on droneships or on land. The last failure took place in March 2020, and was the second failure in three Falcon 9 launches. The March failure was caused by engine cleaning fluid that was trapped inside and interfered with a sensor, while the earlier failure was blamed on incorrect wind data.
- The booster on this launch made its sixth flight. It first flew in December 2019 on a cargo Dragon mission, then was used for another cargo Dragon in March 2020. It subsequently launched a set of Starlink satellites, along with three SkySats for Planet, in June, followed by SAOCOM-1B in August and the NROL-108 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office in December.
- The primary purpose of the mission, though, was a success, adding to the growing constellation of Starlink satellites. SpaceX is expanding its beta testing program, and now has more than 10,000 users in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, according to a Feb. 3 filing with the Federal Communications Commission.
- SpaceX, though, is facing renewed opposition from some organizations regarding the nearly $885.5 million in FCC Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) awards it won in December. In a recent white paper, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative (NRTC) argued that the FCC should closely scrutinize SpaceX’s plans to provide broadband internet service via satellite. Those groups say bids by rural cooperatives for RDOF funding to provide broadband service were shut out by both SpaceX as well as fixed wireless networks.
- “I’m really struggling on the physics and economics” of satellite broadband, said Tim Bryan, chief executive of the NRTC, in a Feb. 4 call with reporters. He claimed there were “anecdotal reports” of people who signed up for Starlink beta but were having problems getting connections any faster than four megabits per second, but didn’t elaborate.
- “Starlink’s performance is not theoretical or experimental,” SpaceX noted in its Feb. 3 FCC filing. The company said it had already demonstrated it could meet or exceed key performance tiers, including 100 megabits per second of data to customers and 20 megabits per second of data from them, as well latencies of 31 milliseconds or less.
- Bryan said his group’s issue was how Starlink could scale up to serve larger numbers of customers. “My concern is mostly around the capacity not of one or two users, but what happens when you get to 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 thousand users,” he said.
- “I have no doubt that the Starlink constellation could be successful in some areas, and in some cases, providing coverage over areas like the deep blue seas and those sorts of places,” he said. “I struggle to see how it’s going to reliably deliver 100-megabit service to the literally hundreds and thousands of customers in the census block groups that it bid for.”
• Launch 18: SpaceX successfully launched another set Starlink satellites February 4, 2021 in the first of back-to-back Falcon 9 launches scheduled from Cape Canaveral. The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off at 1:19 a.m. Eastern (06:19 UTC) from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Its payload of 60 Starlink satellites separated from the rocket’s upper stage 65 minutes later. 37)
- The rocket’s first stage landed on a droneship in the Atlantic Ocean eight and a half minutes after liftoff. The booster was on its fifth flight, having been used most recently for the launch of the Turksat 5A satellite Jan. 8.
- The launch is the first of two back-to-back Falcon 9 Starlink missions from Florida. A second Falcon 9 is scheduled to launch Feb. 5 from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, also carrying 60 Starlink satellites.
- For a time, SpaceX planned launching both rockets Feb. 4, less than four and a half hours apart. The company said late Feb. 2 that the launch doubleheader was pending favorable weather and range approvals. While the 45th Space Wing announced Feb. 3 that it approved SpaceX’s launch plans, the company announced later that day it was delaying the launch from LC-39A, which had been scheduled for 5:36 a.m. Eastern, by a day for additional pre-launch checks. — Note: The next launch of SpaceX with a set of 60 Starlink satellites is now postponed to February 15.
- The last time two launches took place from the Eastern Range, which includes Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and KSC, in a single day was in November 1966, with launches of NASA’s Gemini 12 mission and its Atlas Agena docking target 99 minutes apart. SpaceX proposed carrying out two Falcon 9 launches in one day in August 2020, but one of the two launches was scrubbed by weather.
• Launch 17: SpaceX first Rideshare mission called Transporter-1. On January 24, 2021 at 15:00 UTC (10 a.m. EST), SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (SLC-40) with 143 small satellites, a record number of spacecraft on a single mission, giving a boost to startup space companies and stressing the U.S. military’s tracking network charged with sorting out the locations of all objects in orbit. 38)
- This SpaceX mission carried also 10 Starlink satellites into orbit. The other satellites on this Rideshare mission will be listed in the separate Transporter-1 file on the eoPortal.
- SSO orbit of Rideshare mission:
SpaceX sent this mission with its 10 Starlink satellites into a polar
SSO (Sun-Synchronous Orbit) with permission of the FCC (Federal
Communications Commission). Altitude of 560 km and inclination of
97.6º (Ref. 68).
Figure 14: This photo shows the stack of 143 small satellites aboard SpaceX’s Transporter-1 mission before encapsulation inside the Falcon 9 rocket’s payload shroud (image credit: SpaceX)
• Launch 16: SpaceX launched its latest set of 60 Starlink satellites Jan. 20, 2021, bringing the total number of spacecraft launched so far for that broadband constellation to more than 1,000. 39) 40)
- The rocket’s first stage, making its eighth flight, landed on a droneship in the Atlantic Ocean. SpaceX cautioned during the webcast of the launch that the potential for high ground-level winds made the landing an “envelope expansion” attempt. However, the stage landed without incident in the center of the droneship.
- The launch was the first time SpaceX flew a booster eight times. The booster, first used to launch the Demo-1 commercial crew test flight in March 2019, was most recently flown on the SXM-7 launch Dec. 13. The 38-day turnaround time between launches is also a record for the shortest time between flights of the same booster.
- With this launch, SpaceX has now delivered 1,015 Starlink satellites into orbit, dating back to the two “Tintin” prototypes launched in February 2018. Of those 1,015, 951 are still in orbit, according to statistics maintained by spaceflight observer Jonathan McDowell.
- SpaceX ramped up deployment of Starlink last year, with 14 launches. The rapid growth of the constellation has alarmed astronomers, who are concerned that Starlink and other megaconstellations could disrupt their observations.
- Speaking during a session of the 237th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society Jan. 14, Patricia Cooper, vice president of satellite government affairs at SpaceX, argued that the company has taken major steps to reduce the impact of Starlink satellites on astronomy over the last year.
- “We at SpaceX have certainly enjoyed what I would call a thoughtful and creative technical collaboration with an ever-widening group of astronomers,” she said, resulting in a “deeper and fuller technical understanding of the intersection of the satellite constellation sector and specific projects affect ground-based astronomy.”
- That has resulted in the development of a version of the Starlink satellites called VisorSat, which is equipped with visors to prevent sunlight from reflecting off antennas and other surfaces on the satellites, reducing their brightness. Every Starlink satellite launched after August 2020 is equipped with visors, accounting for more than 400 satellites, she said.
- The goal of the VisorSats is to reduce the brightness of the Starlink satellites to magnitude 7 or fainter. Observations of those satellites that have reached their final orbit, though, indicate they have an average magnitude of 6.5, said Pat Seitzer of the University of Michigan during the conference session.
- Cooper said SpaceX is committed to continue to work with astronomers to mitigate the effect of Starlink, but also emphasized the benefits of the system. “It’s important to keep the purpose of this disruption to astronomy, from your perspective, in context of the goal of the constellation we’re deploying, which is broadband connectivity,” she said.
- “This collaboration needs to continue,” she added, because those discussions are “what’s getting us to a much better, more successful way of coexisting.”
Figure 15: A Falcon 9 rocket, flying with a first stage flown on seven previous missions, climbs through the atmosphere Wednesday (20 January) over Florida’s Space Coast (image credit: SpaceX)
• Launch 15: The 100th flight of a Falcon 9 rocket delivered 60 satellites to orbit for SpaceX’s Starlink network on 25 November 2020 (02:13 UTC, corresponding to 09:13 p.m. EST on 24 November), adding another building block to a planned fleet of thousands of solar-powered space-based relay stations to beam broadband connectivity around the world. 41)
Figure 16: A Falcon 9 rocket climbs away from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on 24 November 2020 (image credit: SpaceX)
- The successful mission also set a new record for SpaceX’s rocket reuse program — one that could be broken again within months if SpaceX maintains its feverish launch cadence. For the first time, a reusable Falcon 9 booster completed its seventh trip to space and back on this flight.
- The rocket's 15-story first stage booster dropped away from the Falcon 9 upper stage about two-and-a-half after liftoff, setting a course for a controlled touchdown on SpaceX’s drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” positioned several hundred miles northeast of Cape Canaveral in the Atlantic Ocean.
- The booster — designated B1049 in SpaceX’s rocket inventory — reignited its center engine for a braking maneuver just before touchdown, then extended a landing gear before settling onto the deck of the drone ship. The apparently flawless landing punctuated the seventh mission of the B1049 vehicle, making it SpaceX’s “fleet leader.”
- Along with its reused first stage booster, the Falcon 9 launched with a recycled clamshell-like payload shroud, half of which flew on two previous missions. The other half of the fairing was a veteran one prior launch.
- While the booster and fairing shells descended back to Earth, the Falcon 9’s upper stage guided the 60 flat-panel Starlink satellites into a transfer orbit inclined 53 degrees to the equator. Around 15 minutes after liftoff, the upper stage released retention rods to allow the stack of 60 spacecraft to fly free from the rocket over the North Atlantic Ocean.
- The Falcon 9 aimed to place the satellites into an elliptical orbit ranging between 132 miles (213 km) and 227 miles (366 km). A member of SpaceX’s launch team confirmed on a mission audio loop that the rocket achieved an on-target orbital insertion.
- The quarter-ton Starlink satellites, built by SpaceX in Redmond, Washington, were expected to unfurl power-generating solar arrays and prime their krypton ion thrusters to begin raising their orbits to an operational altitude of 341 miles (550 km), where they will join more than 800 other Starlink relay stations to beam broadband internet signals across most of the populated world.
- With this launch, SpaceX has deployed 955 Starlink satellites into orbit.
• Launch 14: SpaceX successfully deployed 60 more Starlink internet satellites in orbit Saturday, continuing a record launch cadence while engineers assess a concern with Falcon -9 rocket engines that has delayed other missions, including the next crew flight to the International Space Station. 42)
- The 60 Starlink satellites were launched from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 15:31:34 GMT on 24 October 2020. The mission was delayed from Thursday to allow time for engineers to assess a problem with a camera on the Falcon-9 rocket’s upper stage.
- The rocket’s first stage shut down its engines and separated two-and-a-half minutes into the mission, beginning a controlled descent to a pinpoint landing on a floating platform parked some 630 km northeast of the launch site.
- The landing concluded the third trip to space and back for the reusable Falcon-9 booster — designated B1060 — and the touchdown occurred moments before the rocket’s upper stage delivered the 60 Starlink satellites into a preliminary parking orbit.
- SpaceX did not try to catch the Falcon-9’s two-piece payload fairing as they fell back to Earth under parachutes. A nose cone structure damaged a net on one of SpaceX’s fairing recovery vessels on the company’s most recent launch Oct. 18.
- Instead, SpaceX dispatched one of the boats from its fleet to retrieve the fairing structures from the Atlantic Ocean for inspections, refurbishment, and potential use on a future flight.
- After coasting across the Atlantic Ocean, Europe and the Middle East, the Falcon-9’s upper stage briefly reignited its single engine at T+plus 44 minutes to inject the Starlink satellites into a near-circular orbit at an altitude of roughly 275 km with an inclination of 53º to the equator.
- All 60 satellites, which were flat-packed on top of the Falcon 9 rocket for launch, separated from the upper stage at 16:34 GMT. A live video feed from the rocket showed the flat-panel satellites receding from view as they flew south of Tasmania.
- The satellites, built by SpaceX in Redmond, Washington, were expected to unfurl power-generating solar arrays and prime their krypton ion thrusters to begin raising their orbits to an operational altitude of 550 km, where they will join more than 800 other Starlink relay stations to beam broadband internet signals across most of the populated world.
- SpaceX says the Starlink network — designed for low-latency internet service — is still in its early stages, and engineers continue testing the system to collect latency data and speed tests. In a filing with the FCC dated Oct. 13, SpaceX said it has started beta testing of the Starlink network in multiple U.S. states, and is providing internet connectivity to previously unserved students in rural areas.
Launch 13: SpaceX launched 60 more Starlink internet relay platforms into orbit on 18 October 2020 (Sunday, 12:25:57 UTC) from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center, as the company ramps up network testing in Washington state and touts a streak of nearly 300 satellites launched since June without a spacecraft failure. 43)
- After 2.5 minutes into the flight, the first stage booster shut down its engines and detached to begin descending toward SpaceX’s drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” in the Atlantic Ocean.
- The first stage booster nailed its landing on SpaceX’s drone ship around 400 miles (630 km) northeast of Cape Canaveral. It was the sixth trip to space and back for this particular booster — designated B1051 — after its debut on an unpiloted test flight of the Crew Dragon spacecraft in March 2019.
- At the same time, the Falcon 9’s upper stage delivered the 60 Starlink internet satellites into a preliminary orbit. The upper stage engine later reignited to maneuver the payloads into a near-circular orbit 278 km above Earth, with an inclination of 53 degrees to the equator.
- The 60 flat-panel satellites separated from the rocket at 9:29 a.m. EDT (13:29 GMT) to conclude SpaceX’s 70th straight successful mission. A camera on the upper stage showed the 60 satellites — each with a mass of about a quarter-ton — flying free of the Falcon 9 over the Indian Ocean.
- SpaceX said its two fairing recovery ships caught both halves of the fairing from Sunday’s launch as the clamshells came back to Earth under parachutes. The net on one of the vessels gave way as the fairing settled into orbit, but SpaceX said its ocean-going recovery team was OK.
- With the satellites launched Sunday, SpaceX has placed 835 Starlink broadband relay stations into orbit, including prototypes that won’t be used for commercial service. That extends SpaceX’s lead in operating the largest fleet of satellites in orbit.
• October 18, 2020: With this launch, SpaceX has now placed 835 Starlink satellites into orbit. However, more than 50 of those satellites have since reentered, including 45 of the 60 “v0.9” Starlink satellites launched in May 2019 and the first two “Tintin” prototypes launched in February 2018. 44)
- Starlink is currently in a private beta test of its broadband internet system, and the company has said it plans to offer a more public beta test before the end of the year. In both the launch webcast as well as recent filings with the Federal Communications Commission, the company has highlighted early users of the system, such as the emergency management department in the state of Washington, which used Starlink to provide connectivity during recent wildfires in the state, as well as the Hoh tribe in the state, which previously had no broadband access because of its remote location.
- The launch is the second Starlink mission in less than two weeks as SpaceX seeks to maintain a rate of roughly two Starlink launches a month to build out the constellation. Those launches have moved ahead while another Falcon 9, carrying a GPS 3 navigation satellite for the U.S. Space Force, remains grounded after a last-second abort Oct. 2 blamed on a problem with gas generators in the rocket’s first-stage engines.
- That scrub led NASA to postpone a Falcon 9 launch of the Crew-1 commercial crew mission, which had been scheduled for Oct. 31. NASA announced Oct. 10 it was postponing the launch to the first half of November while the investigation into the scrub continues.
- NASA has not issued any updates on the status of the Crew-1 launch, although one NASA webpage lists a launch of no earlier than Nov. 11. “That investigation is ongoing,” Tim Dunn of NASA’s Launch Services Program said at an Oct. 16 briefing about the scheduled Nov. 10 launch of the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich ocean science satellite, which will also use a Falcon 9.
- Dunn said that there has been a “tremendous amount of testing” since the GPS 3 launch scrub, including taking the Merlin engines from that rocket back to SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas, test site for further study. That investigation has involved NASA and Space Force personnel working with SpaceX.
- He did not elaborate, though, on the specific problem with the engines or when either the GPS 3 or Crew-1 missions might launch. “We’ve learned a lot. There’s going to be some hardware implications as we move forward, depending on the engines installed on various rockets,” he said.
- However, he did not expect the engine issue to delay the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich launch. “As of today, we have a path forward that allows us to do whatever necessary rework may be required and still maintain that 10 November launch date.”
Launch12: Sixty more SpaceX Starlink broadband satellites rocketed into orbit on 6 October 2020 (11:29:34 UTC) from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center, breaking a streak canceled launch attempts at the Florida spaceport in recent weeks and nudging the Starlink network closer to reaching a wider population. 45)
- The Falcon 9’s first stage nailed the landing — the 61st successful recovery of a SpaceX rocket booster — as the second stage injected the mission’s 60 Starlink satellites into orbit.
- The reusable booster completed its third trip to space and back, following flights earlier this year to help send NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken into orbit on a Crew Dragon capsule in May, and a launch in July with South Korea’s Anasis 2 military communications satellite.
- One half of the two-piece, clamshell-like payload fairing on this mission was also making its third flight. A recovery boat in the Atlantic caught the reusable fairing half again as it descended under a parachute.
- The Falcon 9’s upper stage ignited a second time to place the 60 Starlink payloads into an on-target near-circular orbit around 170 miles (275 km) above Earth, with an inclination of 53 degrees to the equator.
- The 60 flat-panel satellites separated from the Falcon 9’s upper stage around 12:31 GMT. A live video feed from the rocket showed the payloads drifting away into space.
- The 60 spacecraft, built by SpaceX in Redmond, Washington, were expected to unfurl solar panels and activate krypton ion thrusters to begin raising their altitude to 550 km, where they will begin providing broadband service.
- With this launch, SpaceX has deployed 775 Starlink satellites to date, including two prototype platforms and 773 satellites on 13 Falcon 9 launches since May 2019.
- SpaceX plans to operate an initial block of around 1,500 Starlink satellites in orbits 550 km above Earth. The company, founded by billionaire Elon Musk, has regulatory approval from the Federal Communications Commission to eventually field a fleet of up to 12,000 small Starlink broadband stations operating in Ku-band, Ka-band, and V-band frequencies.
Launch 11: The next 60 Starlink relay nodes blasted off on 3 September 2020 (Thursday, 12:46:14 GMT) from Cape Canaveral LC -39A on top of a Falcon 9 rocket, riding SpaceX’s workhorse launcher into orbit. 46)
- The Falcon 9’s reusable first stage booster landed on SpaceX’s drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” holding position in the Atlantic Ocean a couple hundred miles east of Charleston, South Carolina.
- The propulsive pinpoint landing marked the 60th time SpaceX has recovered a Falcon 9 booster, and it completed the second trip to space and back for the specific rocket flown on Thursday.
Figure 17: A Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from pad 39A of Cape Canaveral, Florida, with 60 more Starlink satellites (image credit: SpaceX)
- Meanwhile, the Falcon 9’s upper stage engine injected the 60 Starlink satellites into an on-target orbit tilted 53 degrees to the equator. Retention rods released to allow the flat-panel satellites to fly free of the Falcon 9 rocket around 15 minutes after liftoff.
- SpaceX declared success on the mission, which was the company’s second launch in less than four days from separate pads on Florida’s Space Coast.
- After their deployment from the Falcon 9 rocket, the Starlink satellites were expected to extend solar panels and activate krypton ion thrusters to begin raising their orbit to the Starlink network’s operational shell roughly 550 km above Earth.
- With the 60 fresh satellites launched today, SpaceX has delivered 713 Starlink satellites to orbit on 12 Falcon 9 rocket missions since May 2019. Some of the satellites, including those on the first Starlink launch last May, are being moved to lower altitudes and deorbited.
- SpaceX eventually plans to launch thousands of Starlink satellites, but the first tranche of Starlinks will number 1,440 spacecraft, according to Jonathan Hofeller, SpaceX’s vice president of Starlink and commercial sales.
- Each flat-panel Starlink satellite has a mass of about 250 kg, and they are built at a SpaceX facility in Redmond, Washington, near Seattle. Extending on SpaceX’s penchant for building hardware in-house, the aerospace company is manufacturing its own Starlink satellites, user terminals and ground stations.
- Hofeller said last month that SpaceX is building six Starlink spacecraft per day, and plans to launch Starlink missions at intervals of every two to three weeks until completing the initial Starlink network of around 1,440 satellites.
- In a discussion at the ASCEND Space Science and Technology Summit last month, Hofeller said that the private beta testing is being rolled out in the Pacific Northwest. With roughly 700 satellites, the Starlink network has enough coverage to provide connectivity to users at high latitudes, but more launches are required to expand coverage to other regions.
- SpaceX has asked people interested in participating in the public beta test phase to sign up on the Starlink website.
- SpaceX said Thursday that the tests so far show the network has “super low latency” with download speeds greater than 100 Mbit/s. That’s fast enough to stream multiple HD movies at once, and still have bandwidth to spare, according to SpaceX.
Launch 10: A Falcon 9 rocket loaded with 58 more broadband relay nodes for SpaceX’s Starlink Internet network took off on 18 August 2020 (14:31:16 UTC) from Cape Canaveral LC40, bringing the total number of Starlink spacecraft launched since May 2019 to 653 satellites. 47)
- The reusable Falcon 9 booster that powered the 58 Starlink satellites toward space was making its sixth flight, setting a new record for SpaceX’s liquid-fueled rocket family.
- The fresh Starlink craft launched today widened SpaceX’s lead in fielding the largest fleet of satellites, and also added to the constellation of Earth-imaging satellites owned by Planet. Planet’s satellite fleet is the second-biggest after SpaceX’s Starlink network.
- Three commercial SkySat Earth observation satellites hitched a ride into orbit on the Falcon 9 rocket, joining around 150 other small spacecraft in the Planet’s fleet.
- Two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9’s first stage shut down its nine Merlin engines and separated to begin a descent toward SpaceX’s drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” positioned in the Atlantic Ocean around 400 miles (630 km) northeast of Cape Canaveral.
- After ignition of the Falcon 9’s upper stage engine, the rocket shed its clamshell-like payload shroud at T+plus 3 minutes, 12 seconds. The two halves of the nose cone came back to Earth under parachutes for retrieval by a pair of SpaceX recovery boats.
- The 15 story first stage nailed its return to SpaceX’s offshore landing platform nearly nine minutes after liftoff, completing its sixth round-trip flight to space and back. That’s a new record for SpaceX’s fleet of Falcon boosters, which previously had flown no more than five times a piece.
- Designated B1049 in SpaceX’s fleet, the booster used on Tuesday’s mission first flew from Cape Canaveral in September 2018 in the launch of Telesat’s Telstar 18 VANTAGE communications satellites. After landing on a SpaceX drone ship, the booster launched again from California in January 2019 with 10 Iridium voice and data relay satellites, and again returned to a propulsive touchdown on an offshore recovery vessel.
- The Falcon first stage launched three more times with satellites for SpaceX’s Starlink broadband network, most recently on June 3. SpaceX says the Falcon 9’s first stage booster is capable of at least 10 flights without a major overhaul, though engineers perform routine inspections and refurbishment between each mission.
- SpaceX later confirmed one of the two halves of the payload shroud used on Tuesday’s launch was successfully caught by a net aboard one of the company’s two fairing recovery vessels. The other fairing clamshell parachuted into the Atlantic Ocean and will be retrieved for return to Cape Canaveral, SpaceX said. — The fairing on today’s mission was reused from a previous Falcon 9/Starlink launch.
- The Falcon 9’s upper stage delivered its 61 satellite passengers into an on-target elliptical orbit around Earth ranging in altitude between 128 miles (207 km) and 229 miles (370 km). The three SkySats, mounted on top of the Starlink satellite array, separated at 30-second intervals beginning about 12-and-a-half minutes into the mission.
- After flying halfway around the world, the upper stage released the 58 Starlink payloads over the Indian Ocean about 46 minutes after liftoff.
- Beginning with the Starlink launch earlier this month, SpaceX says all of the Starlink satellites are equipped with sunshade visors (see Figure 20) to reduce their reflectivity, a measure aimed at mitigating concerns that thousands of Starlink spacecraft might interfere with astronomical observations using ground-based telescopes.
- SpaceX says it needs 24 launches to provide Starlink Internet coverage over nearly all of the populated world, and 12 launches could enable coverage of higher latitude regions, such as Canada and the northern United States.
- SkySats: The three Planet-owned Earth observation satellites deployed in orbit Tuesday are the last three of 21 SkySat high-resolution reconnaissance platforms the San Francisco-based company plans to launch.
- The SkySats join 18 others Planet has launched aboard U.S., European and Indian rockets since 2013, supplying regularly-updated sharp images of the world’s cities, forests, farms, waterways, and other regions of interest to government and commercial users.
- Planet confirmed its ground team acquired the first radio signals from all three satellites minutes after Tuesday’s launch, confirming the spacecraft were alive and well in orbit.
- The SkySats offer Planet’s customers high-resolution views of Earth, while a flock of more than 100 smaller Dove CubeSats provide wider area coverage at lower resolution.
- Planet launched three identical SkySats on a Falcon-9/Starlink launch June 13, and the three new spacecraft launched on 18 August will bring the SkySat fleet to 21 satellites.
- The SkySats taking off on rideshare missions with SpaceX’s Starlink satellites fly at a lower-inclination orbit inclined 53º to the equator. Planet says the new satellites “will offer more targeted coverage and raw image capacity in key geographic regions.”
Figure 18: Three Planet SkySat Earth-imaging satellites (SkySat-19, -20 and -21) accompanied 58 SpaceX Starlink satellites on a Falcon-9 rocket on Launch 11 (image credit: SpaceX)
Launch 9: On 7 August 2020 (05:12:05:UTC), SpaceX launched their 10th Starlink mission, carrying 57 minisatellites and two commercial microsatellites of the BlackSky Global (a division of Spaceflight Industries) Earth observation constellation of Seattle WA, USA (BlackSky's fifth and sixth satellites - named Global 7 and 8, each with a mass of 55 kg). The launch site was LC-39A (Launch Complex 39A) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The launch vehicle was Falcon-9. With this launch, SpaceX will have delivered 595 Starlink satellites to orbit since May 2019. 48) 49)
Figure 19: BlackSky’s fifth and sixth operational Earth-imaging satellites are pictured inside a SpaceX processing facility at Cape Canaveral (image credit: SpaceX)
The mission was previously scheduled for 26 June, but the flight was scrubbed around three hours ahead of liftoff when SpaceX tweeted that they needed more time for pre-launch checkouts.
According to SpaceX, Falcon 9’s first stage previously supported Crew Dragon’s first demonstration mission to the International Space Station, the launch of the RCM (RADARSAT Constellation Mission), and the fourth and seventh Starlink missions.
Following stage separation, Falcon 9’s first stage landed on the “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship stationed in the Atlantic Ocean.
The BlackSky Global spacecraft deployed sequentially beginning 1 hour and 1 minute after liftoff, and the Starlink satellites deployed approximately 1 hour and 33 minutes after liftoff.
This is the first launch of SpaceX to carry a full set of Starlink satellites equipped with new sunshades, or visors, in an attempt to make the spacecraft less visible to ground-based telescopes, addressing concerns voiced by astronomers that thousands of Starlink satellites could interfere with scientific observations.
Launch 8: On June 13, 2020 (9:21 UTC), SpaceX successfully launched their ninth Starlink mission, carrying 58 Starlink satellites and three of Planet’s SkySat Earth Observation microsatellites (110 kg each) from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida — this mission marked SpaceX’s first SmallSat Rideshare Program launch. 50)
- SpaceX deployed the SkySat satellites first, about 13 minutes after liftoff, followed by the Starlink satellites about 39 minutes after liftoff.
- The mission used a Falcon 9 booster that flew two cargo missions to the International Space Station for NASA, the last being CRS-20 in March. The rocket featured a previously flown payload fairing, with one half recovered from the Jcsat-18/Kacific-1 satellite mission in December, and the other from SpaceX’s third Starlink mission, which took place in January.
- SpaceX recovered the rocket’s first-stage for a third time, landing the booster on the drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” in the Atlantic Ocean.
- SpaceX Lead Manufacturing Engineer Jessie Anderson said the launch contract covering Planet’s three SkySat satellites was signed six months ago. Planet’s Saturday launch, and a second Starlink rideshare scheduled for July will complete the operator’s constellation of 21 SkySats, a fleet that complements Planet’s larger constellation of Dove CubeSats.
- Once all 21 SkySats are in orbit, Planet says it will be able to image locations an average of seven times a day, with some locations seeing up to 12 revisits a day, at 50-centimeter resolution. Planet’s CubeSats collect imagery in 3-5 meter resolution.
- Another Earth-observation company, BlackSky, said in a recent interview that it has two satellites scheduled to launch June 24 on a Starlink rideshare mission. Barring schedule slips, that would be three Starlink launches in June, which would be the highest number of Starlink launches conducted in a month.
- SpaceX was targeting two Starlink launches a month throughout 2020, but has averaged one Starlink launch a month so far. The company has launched 540 Starlink satellites to date, counting two prototypes, out of a planned system comprising several thousand.
Launch 7: On June 4 2020 (01:25 UTC, or at 9:25 pm EDT on June 3), SpaceX launched the eighth batch of Starlink communication satellites on a flight-proven Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 40 (LC-40). The successful launch boosted the number of Starlink satellites circling the Earth to 480, by far the greatest number of any communications network. 51)
- At about 2 minutes, 45 seconds after launch, the nine main engines of the rocket's first stage shut off, and that stage re-entered the Earth's atmosphere for recovery off Florida on the SpaceX barge named Just Read the Instructions. - The first stage landed mostly inside a bull's-eye on the flat deck.
- The second stage carried the satellites into orbit successfully, SpaceX engineers said. Video showed the Starlink cluster deploying roughly 15 minutes after liftoff.
- The size of the Starlink constellation already is large enough for "minor" Internet coverage around the world, according to SpaceX founder Elon Musk's statements to the press before the first Starlink launch in 2019.
- But SpaceX hasn't released more information about the network's operation or its intended customers.
- Starlink aims to provide next-generation broadband Internet service to the globe, outpacing that offered by such players as Iridium or Intelsat. SpaceX said in 2019 it aimed to launch 1,600 satellites in the first phase.
- At that point, the satellites would transmit data to each other via laser pulses through the vacuum of space — a far faster method than even fiber optic cables on Earth.
- Starlink, which the company said could cost $10 billion to develop and launch, has boosted the value of SpaceX and its recent rounds of investment, according to stock analysts and SpaceX's filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
- SpaceX raised $567 million, according to the commission documents filed in the last few months.
- "We are modeling for $10 billion to $15 billion from 2020-2025 for Starlink, with the potential for more from ground terminals, 30,000 additional satellites and replacement of satellites" and other SpaceX endeavors, according to a recent note from analysts at Morgan Stanley.
- Starlink also would owe some of its speed to its much lower orbit than previous communication satellite networks — 340 miles (550 km) up.
- By comparison, Iridium satellites are about 485 miles (780 km ) up. The Kármán line that defines space is 62 miles high, and the International Space Station is more than 250 miles (400 km) high.
- On this mission, SpaceX was to launch the first Starlink satellite with a visor to block sunlight from hitting the brightest spots of the spacecraft. Musk announced April 27 that the sunshade, which he called a VisorSat, would be included in the next Starlink launch.
- VisorSat is designed to prevent the satellites from reflecting sunlight back to the Earth, which can interrupt astronomy observations.
- This was the second Starlink launch during restrictions on access to the Air Force station due to the coronavirus pandemic. The launch also came on the heels of Saturday's (31 May) successful SpaceX launch of the first flight of NASA astronauts from U.S. soil since 2011.
- The first-stage booster for this launch previously flew four times, including the launch of an Iridium satellite in January 2019, and two separate Starlink missions in May 2019 and January 2020.
Launch 6: On 22 April 2020 (19:30: 30 UTC), SpaceX launched 60 more Starlink satellites from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. 52)
Two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9’s first stage booster shut down and separated to begin a controlled descent back into the atmosphere. The rocket’s single-engine upper stage ignited seconds later, and the Falcon 9 released its clamshell-like payload fairing more than three minutes into the mission.
Flying into space for the fourth time, the reusable first stage nailed a pinpoint landing on SpaceX’s drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean east of Charleston, South Carolina. Two recovery ships were stationed in the Atlantic to retrieve the rocket’s two-piece payload shroud, which was also recycled from a previous flight.
The satellites were each expected to extend their power-generating solar panel wing go through an activation sequence. Krypton ion thrusters on the spacecraft will boost them from their preliminary elliptical transfer orbit to an operational altitude of 550 km over the coming weeks and months.
With this launch, SpaceX has delivered 422 Starlink satellites to space, including two prototypes that are now being deorbited. Since last May, SpaceX has orbited 420 Starlink spacecraft. Three of those relay stations are no longer in orbit, according to publicly-available U.S. military tracking data.
Launch 5: SpaceX launched their 6th Starlink mission of 60 satellites on March 18, 2020 (12:16 UTC). The company's Falcon 9 launch vehicle lifted off from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. 53) 54)
Falcon 9’s first stage previously supported the Iridium-7 NEXT mission in July of 2018, the SAOCOM 1A mission in October of 2018, the Nusantara Satu mission in February of 2019, and the second launch of Starlink in November of 2019. Falcon 9’s fairing previously supported the first launch of Starlink in May 2019.
he Starlink satellites deployed in an elliptical orbit approximately 15 minutes after liftoff. Prior to orbit raise, SpaceX engineers conducted data reviews to ensure all Starlink satellites are operating as intended. Once the checkouts are complete, the satellites will then use their onboard ion thrusters to move into their intended orbits and an operational altitude of 550 km.
An attempt to land the Falcon 9's first stage in the Atlantic Ocean on SpaceX's drone ship "Of Course I Still Love You" was unsuccessful.
And despite the loss of one of its nine engines, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said they were still able to deliver the 60 Starlink satellites on board the Falcon 9, which went exactly as planned. That’s due in part to the redundancy built into the design of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, which uses nine Merlin engines working together.
Launch 4: On February 17, 2020 (15:06 GMT), 60 more satellites for SpaceX’s Starlink broadband network launched Monday on a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, bringing the total number of Starlink platforms deployed in orbit since last May to 300. 55)
Two-and-a-half minutes into the mission, the Falcon 9’s first stage booster shut down its engines and separated, allowing a single Merlin engine on the launcher’s second stage to fire into orbit.
Seconds later, the Falcon 9’s payload shroud jettisoned as the rocket soared into space, revealing the launcher’s more than 15.6-metric ton payload package, comprised of 60 flat-panel signal relay nodes for SpaceX’s Starlink network.
While the second stage accelerated into orbit, the first stage of the Falcon 9 descended back through the atmosphere and attempted landing on SpaceX’s football field-sized drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” holding position nearly 630 km northeast of Cape Canaveral.
But the rocket missed the drone ship and appeared to make a soft landing in the water nearby, according to streaming video from the offshore vessel. The missed landing marked the first time a first stage booster on a Falcon 9 rocket has missed a landing attempt on a SpaceX drone ship since 2016.
The Falcon rocket used on Monday’s mission was a veteran of three previous launches and landings. It’s not likely to be reused after landing in sea water.
Two other SpaceX vessels were positioned in the Atlantic Ocean to try to catch the two halves of the Falcon 9’s payload shroud. SpaceX did not announce the results of the fairing recovery attempt, but a company employee said engineers are still experimenting with catching the aerodynamic shroud using fast-moving ships fitted with giant nets. Previous catch attempts have been hit or miss.
After firing thrusters to enter a controlled spin, the upper stage released retention rods holding the Starlink satellites to the rocket. That allowed the spacecraft to fly away from the Falcon 9 as the vehicles soared over the North Atlantic Ocean.
One change introduced Monday different from past Starlink missions was the release of the Starlink payloads into an elliptical transfer orbit, instead of a circular orbit.
“We are executing a direct inject of the Starlink satellites into an elliptical orbit,” said Jessica Anderson, a manufacturing engineer at SpaceX. “In prior Starlink missions, we deployed the satellites into a 290-kilometer circular orbit, which required two burns of the Merlin vacuum engine on the second stage.
“Keep in mind the stack of 60 Starlink satellites combined is one of the heaviest payloads we fly, so putting them directly into this orbit requires more vehicle performance and makes recovery more challenging,” she said. “Going forward, and starting with today, we will deploy the satellites shortly after the first burn of the second stage, putting the Starlink satellites into an elliptical orbit.
“Once checkouts are complete, the satellites will then use their on-board ion thrusters to move into their intended orbits at an operational altitude of 550 km.”
According to preflight predictions, the Starlink craft on Monday were programmed for deployment in an elliptical, or egg-shaped, orbit ranging between 212 and 386 kilometers in altitude, with an inclination of 53º to the equator.
As a result of the orbit change, the Falcon 9’s second stage remained in orbit after release the Starlink satellites Monday. It is expected to passively re-enter the atmosphere in the coming months, instead of performing a controlled de-orbit burn, as the stage did after previous Starlink launches.
Like SpaceX’s previous Starlink launches, the satellites deployed in a tight cluster. SpaceX ground teams will activate krypton ion thrusters and other systems on the satellites to maneuver them into a higher orbit, targeting an altitude of 341 miles (578 km) for operational service broadcasting signals in Ku-band.
The first phase of SpaceX’s Starlink program, which aims to beam consumer broadband to customers around the world, will include 1,584 of the flat-panel satellites — including spares — in orbit 578 km above Earth.
SpaceX has approval from the Federal Communications Commission to operate nearly 12,000 Starlink satellites in Ku-band, Ka-band and V-band frequencies, with groups of spacecraft flying at different altitudes with various orbital inclinations.
Launch 3: On January 29, 2020, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying it's third batch of 60 Starlink satellites. The launch was at 9:06 a.m EST (14:06 GMT) Wednesday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, the rocket’s first stage shut down its engines and dropped away from the Falcon 9’s second stage. Seconds later, the upper stage’s single Merlin engine — modified with an enlarged nozzle for better performance in space — ignited to accelerate the 60 Starlink satellites into orbit. 56)
The Falcon 9 jettisoned its clamshell-like payload fairing nearly three-and-a-half minutes into the mission.
Flying tail first, the rocket’s first stage booster reignited three of its nine engines to guide it toward SpaceX’s drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” positioned around 630 km northeast of Cape Canaveral. A final landing burn using the center engine slowed the booster for a controlled vertical touchdown on the football field-sized barge, marking the 49th time SpaceX has recovered one of its rockets intact.
The booster flown Wednesday was making its third trip to space, following successful launches and landings in March 2019 and June 2019 on flights carrying SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft and Canada’s Radarsat Constellation Mission. With Wednesday’s mission, the booster has launched from all three of SpaceX’s active launch pads in Florida and California.
SpaceX said the rocket did its job placing the satellites into the proper orbit, and live video from the Falcon 9’s second stage showed the 60 flat-panel satellites separating from the launch vehicle as it flew south of Australia about one hour after liftoff from Cape Canaveral.
The Starlink satellites, built at a SpaceX facility in Redmond, Washington, filled the volume of the Falcon 9’s payload fairing. Each satellite has a mass of 260 kg, and the Starlink spacecraft stacked together form the heaviest payload SpaceX has ever launched.
With Wednesday’s launch, SpaceX has deployed 240 Starlink satellites on four dedicated missions since last May. That makes SpaceX the owner of the world’s largest fleet of commercial satellites.
Figure 22: A view of the 60 Starlink satellites stacked before Wednesday’s launch (image credit: SpaceX)
SpaceX says 24 launches are needed to provide global broadband service through the Starlink service. But the company could provide an interim level of service over parts of the Earth later this year, once SpaceX has launched around 720 satellites on 12 Falcon 9 flights.
Launch 2: On 7 January 2020 (02:19 UTC), SpaceX launched its third batch of 60 Starlink minisatellites (Starlink V1.0-L2) into orbit on a Falcon-9 Block 5 vehicle from Cape Canaveral SLC-40. 57)
- SpaceX wants to begin limited Internet service through the Starlink network later this year, then expand to global service to beam Internet signals to consumers in far-flung locales outside the reach of terrestrial wired broadband connections. Users on airplanes, ships and the U.S. military could also be Starlink customers.
- Blazing a similar trail to two previous Starlink satellite launches last year, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral at 9:19:21 p.m. EST Monday (02:19:21 GMT on 7 January) and turned on a northeasterly heading over the Atlantic Ocean.
- Nine kerosene-fueled Merlin 1D engines on the base of the first stage powered the rocket off the launch pad with 1.7 million pounds of thrust.
- After two-and-a-half minutes, the nine main engines shut down and the first stage separated to begin descent maneuvers toward a landing on SpaceX’s drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” in the Atlantic Ocean.
- The first stage — flying for the fourth time on Monday night’s mission — nailed its landing on the drone ship, marking the 48th time SpaceX has successfully landed a Falcon booster since the company’s first rocket recovery in 2015. An attempt to catch one half of the Falcon 9’s clamshell-like payload fairing in a net fastened to an ocean-going vessel was unsuccessful, SpaceX said.
- The Falcon 9’s second stage ignited its Merlin engine two times to place the 60 Starlink satellites into an orbit with a target altitude of 180 miles (290 kilometers) and an inclination of 53 degrees to the equator. SpaceX confirmed the Falcon 9 injected the payloads close to the planned orbit.
Figure 23: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket streaks downrange to the northeast from Cape Canaveral Monday night with 60 Starlink satellites for the company’s planned global Internet network (image credit: SpaceX)
Launch 1: Sixty upgraded satellites for SpaceX’s Starlink broadband network (Starlink V1.0-L1) rocketed into orbit on Monday,11 November 2019 (14:56 UTC) from Florida’s Space Coast (SLC-40), debuting performance enhancements and notching new firsts in SpaceX’s list of rocket reuse accomplishments. 58)
- SpaceX’s second batch of Starlink satellites joined 60 previous broadband-beaming spacecraft in orbit after deployment from a Falcon 9 rocket, adding to a network that may eventually include thousands of satellites broadcasting high-speed Internet signals from space.
- The Falcon 9’s first stage shut down and detached from the rocket’s second stage around two-and-a-half minutes into the flight. Moments later, the Falcon 9’s second stage lit its single Merlin powerplant to propel itself into orbit with the Starlink payloads, then the rocket’s nose cone opened and fell away, revealing the Starlink satellites after transiting through the thick, lower layers of the atmosphere.
- The first stage booster returned to a propulsive landing on SpaceX’s drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” holding position around 250 miles downrange from Cape Canaveral in the Atlantic Ocean, roughly due east of Charleston, South Carolina. The rocket completed its fourth mission, following three previous launches and landings — two last year, and one in February that helped loft into space an Indonesian communications satellite and the Israeli Beresheet moon lander.
- This launch was the first time SpaceX flew a Falcon 9 booster on a fourth mission. It also marked another first for SpaceX, which demonstrated its capability to reuse a payload fairing recovered from a previous launch.
- The bulbous payload shroud protects satellites during the first few minutes of flight, then drops away from the rocket in two halves. The fairing halves flown on 11 November originally launched on a Falcon Heavy mission April 11, then parachuted into the Atlantic Ocean, where SpaceX teams pulled them from the sea for inspections, refurbishment and reuse.
- Pursuing the prime objective of Monday’s mission, the Falcon 9’s second stage engine switched off about nine minutes after launch, and the rocket coasted over Europe and the Middle East before reigniting its engine at around 10:41 a.m. EST (15:41 GMT) to circularize its orbit. The Falcon 9 aimed for an altitude of around 174 miles (280 km) for deployment of the Starlink satellites, and a member of SpaceX’s launch team confirmed the rocket achieved an on-target orbit.
- The Falcon 9 sent commands at 10:56 a.m. EST (15:46 GMT) to release retention pins holding the Starlink satellites to the launcher, and live video from a camera on-board the rocket showed the 60 flat-panel spacecraft receding in the blackness of space.
Figure 24: Sixty Starlink satellites separated from the Falcon 9 rocket about one hour after launch Monday. The spacecraft deployed in one piece, then will disperse over the coming hours and days (image credit: SpaceX)
- The satellites, monitored at the SpaceX Control Center facility in Redmond, Washington, are designed to gradually disperse over the coming hours and days. Ion thrusters fed by krypton fuel will maneuver the satellites into their orbits at an altitude of 550 km with an inclination of 53º.
- SpaceX says 1,440 of the satellites are needed to provide Internet service over the “populated world,” a service level the company says could be achieved after 24 launches.
- The Starlink network could offer service for northern parts of the United States and Canada after six launches, according to SpaceX.
- SpaceX could launch thousands more Starlink satellites if merited by market demand. The Federal Communications Commission has authorized SpaceX to operate nearly 12,000 Starlink satellites broadcasting in Ku-band, Ka-band and V-band frequencies, with groups of spacecraft positioned at different altitudes and in various planes in low Earth orbit.
- The Starlink network is rapidly becoming a core business area for SpaceX, which is competing with companies like OneWeb and Amazon’s Project Kuiper to deploy fleets of thousands of small satellites in low Earth orbit to beam broadband Internet signals from space to users around the world.
- Developers of the so-called “mega-constellations” in low Earth orbit say their networks offer key advantages over traditional satellite Internet architectures, which relay on satellites in higher orbits, where radio transmissions — even traveling at the speed of light — take longer to reach.
Figure 25: Artist’s illustration of the distribution of satellites in SpaceX’s Starlink network (image credit: SpaceX)
- “Since the most recent launch of Starlink satellites in May, SpaceX has increased spectrum capacity for the end user through upgrades in design that maximize the use of both Ka- and Ku-bands,” SpaceX wrote in a press kit for Monday’s launch. “Additionally, components of each satellite are 100% demisable and will quickly burn up in Earth’s atmosphere at the end of their life cycle — a measure that exceeds all current safety standards.”
- SpaceX said the new Starlink spacecraft design can provide a 400 percent increase in data throughout per satellite, and each satellite carries double the number of steerable phased array broadband beams than on earlier Starlink platforms.
- Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, said last month that the company plans to begin launching Starlink spacecraft equipped with inter-satellite laser crosslinks some time mid-to-late next year.
- Three of the 60 satellites launched in May have stopped communicating with ground controllers, but SpaceX officials say they are pleased with the overall performance of the initial block of Starlink spacecraft.
- The U.S. Air Force is testing Internet connections between aircraft and SpaceX’s Starlink satellites to evaluate the network’s suitability for future military use, and Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, said he sent a tweet last month through a Starlink satellite.
- “We still have ways to go from tweets to 4K cat videos, but we are on our way,” joked Lauren Lyons, a SpaceX engineer who hosted the company’s webcast of Monday’s launch.
Launch : The first demonstation flight of SpaceX's Starlink satellite constellation launched on 24 May ,2019 (02:30 UTC) with the twice-flown Falcon-9 rocket from SLC-40 (Space Launch Complex-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The Falcon vehicle contained a payload of 60 minisatellites, each with a mass of 227 kg. 59) 60)
Figure 26: Image of the first launch of SpaceX's Starlink satellite constellation on 24 May 2019 at 2:30 UTC (image credit: Satnews Daily)
Today’s launch is a major step towards the final goal of launching and operating 12,000 satellites in orbit to beam internet to the ground by the 2020s, reaching those who are not yet connected, with reliable and affordable broadband internet services. It’s estimated that 4 billion people in the world remain unconnected to the internet.
Eight minutes after the launch, the first stage of the rocket successfully landed on the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) in the Atlantic Ocean. This was the third flight for the first stage booster, having flown on the Telstar 18 VANTAGE mission in September 2018, and the Iridium-8 mission in January 2019.
An hour later, the Falcon-9 rocket began to release the satellites at an altitude of 450 km. The satellites then had to separate and use their thrusters to take up their positions in a relatively low orbit of 550 km. 61)
"Successful deployment of 60 Starlink satellites confirmed!", the company said on its official Twitter account.