The Kennedy Space Center’s visitor-observation gantry is sold out. On Thursday evening, SpaceX is scheduled to launch a Falcon 9 rocket … again. But on this rocket’s third launch, it is just the master of ceremonies, not the star of the show.
If all goes according to plan, at one hour and two minutes after takeoff from a Florida launchpad in the United States, SpaceX’s 60 Starlink satellites will self-deploy and start their journeys to their eventual orbit around the earth. The rocket had been scheduled to lift off on Wednesday but the launch was postponed due to high winds.
Barring any further hiccups, these satellites will catapult the company and its colourful founder, Elon Musk, to a solid first-place slot in the race to deliver satellite broadband internet, pole to pole.
Half the world’s population
Roughly half of the world’s population, some 4 billion people, still lack access to the internet, according to the World Bank. Connecting them is potentially costly and technically challenging because many of the people who can’t access the internet live in low-income, rural or secluded areas.
Wednesday’s SpaceX Starlink launch represents what could be a big step towards cutting the cost of delivering fast, broadband services to the half of the world’s population that is underserved or unconnected to the global economy.
While the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has already licensed the operation of 4,425 Starlink satellites, SpaceX’s long-term goal is to create a network of roughly 12,000 satellites in very low orbit around earth, creating a mega-constellation of aerospace equipment.
The World Bank has said the digital economy is responsible for just under quarter of the global gross domestic product – with only half of the potential market yet able to participate.
When Musk opened SpaceX’s Redmond, Washington office in 2015, he told Bloomberg Businessweek “The speed of light is 40 percent faster in the vacuum of space than it is for fibre. The long-term potential is to be the primary means of long-distance internet traffic and to serve people in sparsely populated areas.”
So how will SpaceX do it?
The SpaceX architecture is unproven, but that’s what Thursday’s launch is all about. If the satellites’ design works, it could be revolutionary.
Musk tweeted an image of the fairing loaded up with 60 satellites, its panels, thrusters, solar arrays, and high-throughput antennas on standby for takeoff.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 12, 2019
What is going to push others in the satellite-broadband internet race is the satellites’ end-of-life design. SpaceX is boasting that once a Starlink satellite reaches the end of its life cycle and leaves orbit, a whopping 95 percent of all its components will immediately burn up in the atmosphere.
This redesign is viewed by some observers to be a response to OneWeb, a Starlink direct competitor and regular critic of SpaceX.
OneWeb, which is partnered with Airbus, has been publicly critical of the first two Starlink satellite prototypes, which were launched last year. Google, LeoSat Enterprises, and Blue Origin are also competitors of SpaceX, with their respective satellite broadband projects at different stages of development.
Ostensibly, SpaceX’s hope is that the remaining five percent of this new Starlink deign will burn up completely before reaching the earth’s surface. All satellite operators must submit and receive approval for their end-of-life disposal plans before receiving an FCC license.
Tamping down expectations
Last week at Satellite 2019, SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell cautioned well-wishers and critics alike that this batch of satellites was considered a test, as this design is a prototype, a feature-lean version of what is to come.
“We start launching the satellites for actual service later this year,” she said, “[and] I wouldn’t be surprised if we had two to six launches at the end of the year of Starlink. It depends on how we do with this first batch.”
On Saturday Musk tweeted, “Much will likely go wrong on first mission. Also, six more launches of 60 sats needed for minor coverage, 12 for moderate.”