On Thursday, May 23rd, 2019, SpaceX launched the first batch of their Starlink satellites to orbit. The launch took place at 10:30 pm EDT (07:30 pm PDT) from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral on the Florida coast. With this delivery, SpaceX founder Elon Musk is making good on his promise to begin providing global broadband internet access to the entire world, a goal that has become somewhat challenging in recent years.
In addition to getting the ball rolling on the Starlink constellation, this launch was also a testament to SpaceX’s commitment to reusability. The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket that carried the 60 satellites to orbit had been used in two previous launches – the Telstar 18 VANTAGE mission in September 2018 and the Iridium-8 mission in January 2019.
Following first stage separation, the first stage landed at sea on the “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship. Shortly thereafter, Musk announced the successful retrieval on SpaceX’s official twitteraccount, tweeting: “Falcon 9’s first stage has landed on the Of Course I Still Love You droneship – the third launch and landing of a booster that’s flown for a third time!”
Deployment of the 60 Starlink satellites took place about roughly an hour and two minutes after takeoff (11:32 pm EDT; 08:32 pm PDT), with the satellites being deployed at an altitude of 440 km (273 mi). The satellites then powered up their onboard propulsion rockets to reach an operational altitude of 550 km (340 mi). Once complete, Musk tweeted success once again:
“Falcon 9 launches 60 Starlink satellites to orbit – targeting up to 6 Starlink launches this year and will accelerate our cadence next year to put ~720 satellites in orbit for continuous coverage of most populated areas on Earth.”
The story of Starlink is an interesting and turbulent one. Musk officially announced the company’s plan to engineer a satellite-based internet network back in 2015. However, the precedent for such a service goes back much farther. Since the 1990s, telecommunications companies have contemplated the possibility of using satellites that broadcast in the Ka-band to provide wireless internet access.
Much like satellite phones, one of the major advantages of this would be the ability to connect remote areas or regions where the necessary infrastructure does not exist. Over time, and as the technology has become more affordable, Musk chose to make the development of a satellite internet service a priority for his fledgling space-launch provider.
Since 2015, SpaceX’s plan for creating their Starlink constellation has evolved considerably. Originally, the plan was to deploy 12,000 satellites that would be able to broadcast in the Ka- and Ku-bands to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) by the mid-2020s. However, due to pressure caused by competition in the market, SpaceX decided to expedite things and begin launching the first batch to a lower altitude of 550 kilometers (340 mi).
SpaceX also chose to expedite things by redesigning their first batch of satellites to be smaller and simpler, transmitting only in the Ku-band. In accordance with their new schedule, SpaceX hopes to deploy their first half of their Phase I constellation (1,584 satellites) by April of 2024. This effectively means that SpaceX will need to launch 37 satellites a month to fulfill their licensing agreement with the FCC.
Based on Musk’s most recent declaration that the company will be deploying about 720 in six launches by next year (which works out to 60 launches a month), it is clear that Musk intends to shift the creation of Starlink into high-gear. If he and his company can deliver on this, it will be relatively smooth sailing towards deploying the Phase II constellation (2200 satellites) by November of 2027.