In the latest of a long series of twists, SpaceX has applied to the FCC for permission to operate a Starlink Internet antenna installed on Starship serial number 15 (SN15).
The first of a planned batch of four or more upgraded Starship prototypes, the SN15 was flown a mile down the highway from SpaceX’s South Texas factory to its suborbital launch pad late last week. Around the same time that its aft tank section was preparing for the nose installation on April 3, some of the first 360-degree views of the rocket revealed an unusual porthole-shaped addition just above the front tank dome of the Starship. Already at Starhopper in 2019, spacecraft have used that space between the tank and the nose as an installation point for avionics, Tesla batteries, and various radio and GPS antennas, among other things.
The new hardware generally went unnoticed, but most of those who took notice assumed it was some kind of antenna upgrade. Turns out that speculation was almost certainly correct, but not in the most expected way.
When the new SN15 antenna first appeared, the author speculated that it bore a striking resemblance to a SpaceX Starlink dish. However, another forum user argued that it was more likely an improved S-band antenna similar to those used on SpaceX’s Falcon rockets. Later, the author pointed out that the S-band antenna pass located in the interstage of the Falcon boosters was almost the same size as the new antenna and visible cover on Starship SN15, apparently closing off the housing.
Nine days later, SpaceX requested permission from the FCC to operate a Starlink satellite dish (user terminal) in Boca Chica “at altitudes not exceeding 12.5 km” during operations “on the ground or during test flights.” In other words, the antenna installed on the Starship SN15 is almost certainly a Starlink satellite dish. Surrounded by an aerodynamic shroud, the antenna is firmly attached to the rocket and would be completely reliant on state-of-the-art phase array beamforming to electronically “ steer ” to transmit and receive from one or more of the nearly 1,000 operational Starlink satellites. currently in orbit. .
In SpaceX’s FCC Special Temporary Authority (STA) request, the company curiously requested that the 60-day trial period begin on April 20. Even if the FCC moves extremely fast and grants the STA within a few days to a week of SpaceX’s April 9 request, the company is unlikely to delay Starship SN15 testing or launch plans by nearly ten days. to wait for permission to use the new rocket. Starlink antenna. In other words, while SN15 is the first spacecraft to have a Starlink antenna installed, there’s a decent chance that it won’t be the first to put that capability to the test, both on the ground and during a launch.
While unlikely, the fact that SpaceX’s Starlink SN15 Starlink antenna installation is nearly the same size as the Falcon 9’s reliable but much more basic S-band setup also raises the question of whether flight success Starship’s test could eventually lead to the addition of Starlink antennas on future Falcon boosters. Regardless, Starship SN15 is on track to kick off a busy week of qualifying testing in South Texas. If the rocket suffers significant delays, as it is true that has been the norm for Starship prototypes, it is very likely that SN15 can start testing its Starlink dish in the middle of next week.