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. 11).
The satellite description will be added when it becomes available.
Development status of Starlink
• 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. 2)
- 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.
- SpaceX launched the first 60 satellites in May and says the constellation will be operational for Canada and the northern US next year.
- 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.
- 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. 3)
- 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 2: 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. 5)
- 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. 6)
- 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. 7) 8)
- 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. 9)
Figure 3: 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)
Launch 1: The first 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. 10) 11)
Figure 4: 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.
With a flat-panel design featuring multiple high-throughput antennas and a single solar array, each Starlink satellite has a mass of ~227 kg, this is SpaceX's heaviest launch to date at about 13,620 kg, thus allowing SpaceX to maximize mass production and take full advantage of Falcon- 9's launch capabilities. To adjust position on orbit, maintain intended altitude, and deorbit, Starlink satellites feature Hall thrusters powered by krypton.
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. 12)
"Successful deployment of 60 Starlink satellites confirmed!", the company said on its official Twitter account.
Launch 2: Sixty upgraded satellites for SpaceX's Starlink broadband network 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. 13)
- 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 70 m Falcon 9 climbed away from Cape Canaveral's Complex 40 launch pad at 9:56 a.m. EST (14:56 GMT), turned toward the northeast and soared through scattered clouds on a gorgeous Veterans Day morning.
- 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 5: 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 6: 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 3: On 7 January 2020 (02:19 UTC), SpaceX launched its third batch of 60 Starlink minisatellites into orbit on a Falcon-9 Block 5 vehicle from Cape Canaveral SLC-40. 14)
- The launch of 60 more spacecraft for the Starlink project, which SpaceX sees as a core business area in the coming years, makes the company the operator of the largest fleet of commercial satellites, surpassing the previous mark set by Planet, an operator of Earth-imaging nanosatellites.
- 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 7: 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)
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8) Jon Brodkin, "FCC approves SpaceX plan to launch 4,425 broadband satellites," ars Technica, 30 March 2018, URL: https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2018/03/spacex-gets-fcc-
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11) "Sixty Launched ... 11,940 Left to Go ... as SpaceX Successfully Sends Off Their First Batch of Starlink Satellites," Satnews Daily, 24 May 2019, URL: http://www.satnews.com/story.php?number=179808724
12) "SpaceX launches first satellites of its internet network," Space Daily, 24 May 2019, URL: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/SpaceX_launches
13) Stephen Clark, "Successful launch continues deployment of SpaceX's Starlink network," Spaceflight Now, 11 November 2019, URL: https://spaceflightnow.com/2019/11/11/successful-launch-continues-
14) Stephen Clark, "SpaceX launches more Starlink satellites, tests design change for astronomers," Spaceflight Now, 7 January 2020, URL: https://spaceflightnow.com/2020/01/07/spacex-launches-more-starlink
The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: "Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors" (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (firstname.lastname@example.org)