WASHINGTON – SpaceX continued the deployment of its Starlink broadband constellation with another launch of 60 satellites on April 7, moving closer to providing continuous global service.
A Falcon 9 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 12:34 pm ET. The rocket’s upper stage deployed its payload of 60 Starlink satellites into orbit a little over an hour later.
The rocket’s first stage landed on a drone in the Atlantic eight and a half minutes after takeoff. This was the seventh flight for this thruster, which first launched the Demo-2 commercial crew mission last May and more recently launched another set of Starlink satellites on March 11.
This was the 10th Falcon 9 launch of the year for SpaceX, eight of which have been dedicated to the Starlink satellites. The company now has 1,378 satellites in orbit when accounting for those launched and subsequently exorbitant, according to statistics kept by Jonathan McDowell.
That constellation is now approaching the size needed to provide at least a basic service globally. “We have global reach, but we still don’t have full global connectivity,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president and chief operating officer, during a panel discussion on April 6 at the Satellite 2021 Digital LEO Forum.
“We hope that after about 28 launches we will have continuous coverage around the world,” he added. This launch is the 23rd of the v1.0 satellites, although some v0.9 satellites launched nearly two years ago remain in orbit, along with 10 v1.0 satellites launched into polar orbit on a shared-ride mission in January. That suggests the company will reach the continuous coverage milestone after four or 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 of approximately 550 kilometers. 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 kilometers. SpaceX had filed an application with the FCC to modify that license, moving those additional satellites 550 kilometers.
The FCC has yet to rule on that change, but SpaceX’s current launch rate means the company will hit its current satellite limit of 550 kilometers in a couple of months. Shotwell mentioned during the panel that the company is “lowering our satellites from our original altitude” to address space sustainability concerns. However, it did not address the FCC license modification issue beyond saying that the company would continue to launch satellites “as they allow us.”
Shotwell said the company would go ahead with Starlink launches even after reaching the threshold for continued global coverage. “The plan after that is to continue adding satellites to provide additional capacity,” he said. That includes the launch of additional satellites into polar orbit starting this summer from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Those polar satellites, he said, will likely include links between laser satellites that the company has experimented with on some Starlink satellites.
The element of the overall Starlink effort that has attracted the most attention is the series of launches that have created the world’s largest constellation of satellites in less than two years. However, that hasn’t necessarily been the biggest challenge for SpaceX.
“The satellites and launch have been pretty straightforward for us. We thought we would have more problems with the satellites, but it turns out that our Dragon, which is a very sophisticated satellite, helped us enormously in deciphering the satellite architecture for Starlink, “he said.
What has been challenging, he said, is dealing with a growing number of clients and building a reliable network, but “none of which we cannot 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,” he said. “We will exit beta when we have a great product that we are very proud of.”
Another area of effort has been the ground equipment used by Starlink subscribers, in particular the electronically steerable antenna. Shotwell said the company has been working to reduce the cost of such equipment, which is necessary to achieve large-scale adoption.
“We have made great progress in reducing the cost of our terminal,” he said. That equipment originally cost around $ 3,000. “We are less than half of that right now.”
Customers currently pay around $ 500 for that equipment, which means SpaceX is still significantly subsidizing those terminals. However, that may change, as the business continually moves forward to reduce costs. “We see that our terminals will arrive in the range of a few hundred dollars within the next two years.”
Shotwell appeared on a panel with 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 GEO satellites alone, offer better solutions. “We see absolutely no way, no possibility, that these low-orbit constellations can meet the latent demand of the entire underserved population today,” said Rodolphe Belmer, Eutelsat CEO.
When Belmer and other panel executives 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,” he said. “I don’t think we have a clue how the technology can evolve five years from now.”