WASHINGTON – SpaceX continued the rollout of its Starlink broadband constellation with a new launch of 60 satellites on April 7, which was closer to providing continuous global service.
A Falcon 9 took off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 12:34 p.m. Eastern. The rocket’s top stage put its payload from 60 Starlink satellites into orbit just over an hour later.
The rocket’s first stage landed on a droneship in the Atlantic Ocean eight and a half minutes after launch. This was the seventh flight for this booster, which first launched the Demo-2 commercial crew mission last May and recently launched another set of Starlink satellites on March 11.
This was Falcon 9’s 10th launch of the year for SpaceX, eight of which are dedicated to Starlink satellites. According to Jonathan McDowell’s statistics, the company now has 1,378 satellites in orbit, taking into account the satellites that were launched and then debited.
That constellation is now approaching the size needed to provide basic services at least worldwide. “We do have global reach, but we don’t have full global connectivity yet,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president and chief operating officer, during a panel discussion April 6 at the Satellite 2021 LEO Digital Forum.
“We hope that after about 28 launches we will have continuous coverage around the world,” she added. This launch is the 23rd of the v1.0 satellites, although a few v0.9 satellites launched nearly two years ago remain in orbit, along with 10 v1.0 satellites that will enter polar orbit were launched during a rhythm mission. That suggests the company will hit the continuous coverage milestone after four to five more launches.
Those launches would push SpaceX against the current FCC authorization, allowing the company to operate up to 1,584 satellites in orbits approximately 350 miles (550 kilometers). The company’s current license from the Federal Communications Commission allows it to operate an additional 2,825 satellites at an altitude of 1,100 to 1,300 kilometers. SpaceX had filed a request with the FCC to change that license and move those extra satellites to 550 miles.
The FCC has yet to decide on that change, but SpaceX’s current launch speed means the company will reach its current limit of satellites at 550 miles in a few months. Shotwell said during the panel that the company is “lowering our satellites from our original height” to address concerns about space sustainability. However, she did not address the issue of the FCC license change, except that the company would continue to launch satellites “as we may”.
Shotwell said the company would continue with Starlink launches even after reaching the threshold of continuous global coverage. “The plan is then to continue adding satellites to provide additional capacity,” she said. That includes launching additional satellites to polar orbit this summer from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Those polar satellites, she said, will likely contain laser intersatellite links that the company has been experimenting 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 created the largest satellite constellation in the world in less than two years. However, that was not necessarily the biggest challenge for SpaceX.
“The satellites and launch have been pretty straightforward for us. We thought we would have a bit more trouble with the satellites, but it turns out that our Dragon, a highly advanced satellite, has been a great help 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 solve”.
Starlink remains in beta testing in the United States and several other countries. Shotwell said there are no plans to end beta testing and move to full commercial service in the near future. “We still have a lot of work to do to make the network reliable,” she said. “We leave beta when we have a great product that we are very proud of.”
Another area of effort concerns the ground equipment used by Starlink subscribers, notably the electronically controlled antenna. Shotwell said the company has been working to lower the cost of that equipment, which is necessary to gain widespread adoption.
“We have made great strides in lowering the cost of our terminal,” she said. That equipment originally cost about $ 3,000. “At the moment we are less than half of that.”
Customers are currently paying about $ 500 for that equipment, meaning SpaceX continues to subsidize those terminals significantly. However, that may change as the company makes continuous progress to reduce costs. “We see our terminals come within the range of a few hundred dollars within the next two years.”
Shotwell appeared on a panel of executives from several other satellite operators, many of whom argued that hybrid systems using satellites in low and medium Earth orbits, as well as geostationary orbits, or just GEO satellites, provide better solutions. “We see absolutely no possibility, no possibility, that these low-orbit constellations could meet the latent demand of the entire non-employed population of today,” said Rodolphe Belmer, CEO of Eutelsat.
As Belmer and other executives on the panel expressed reservations about the LEO constellations, Shotwell smiled. “By the way, I always smile when people make projections about what can and cannot be done with technology,” she said. “I don’t think we have any idea how technology can evolve in five years’ time.”