Elon Musk has made a lot of crazy promises and proposals over the years, which inevitably leads people to pester him about deadlines. Whether it’s reusable rockets, affordable electric cars, missions to Mars, intercontinental flights, or anything having to do with his many other ventures, the question inevitably is “when can we expect it?”
That question has certainly come up in relation to his promise to launch a constellation of broadband satellites that would help provide high-speed internet access to the entire world. In response, Musk recently announced that SpaceX will launch the first batch of Starlink satellites in May 2019, and will continue with launches for the next five years.
This represents a major milestone for the company, which has effectively moved from the development phase of this project to production. Another was reached back in February of 2018 when the company launched two Starlink demonstration satellites. Nevertheless, there are still a lot of details about this constellation that are still unclear.
For instance, in November of 2016, SpaceX filed an application with the FCC for a license to operate a constellation of 4425 non-geostationary satellites (NGS) in orbits ranging from 1100 and 1300 km (680 and 800 mi). However, when they issued their regulatory filings in 2017, the plan called for the deployment of nearly 12,000 satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
However, competition from other satellite internet providers forced SpaceX to expedite their plans. By the Fall of 2018, the company announced a new plan to deploy their first batch of 1600 satellites to a lower altitude – 550 kilometers (340 mi). The development team also introduced a simplified design so that the first batch would be ready to go no later than the June of 2019.
Rather than broadcasting in two bands (“Ku” and “Ka”), the simplified design of the first batch will broadcast only in the “Ku” band. At present, SpaceX hopes to launch 2200 satellites in the next five years, which will act as a sort of prototype while the company develops an improved design for full-scale production.
Eventually, this will result in a constellation that offers the kinds of performance outlined in the company’s original plan. This presents numerous challenges, not the least of which is the fact that they will need to conduct launches every month for the next five years, averaging 44 satellites per launch.
Second, there’s the matter of attrition, as satellites will begin to deorbit after a few years and SpaceX will need to replace them regularly in order to maintain its constellation. In fact, Hugh Lewis – the UK Space Agency’s representative on the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee – recently stated that in order to maintain a constellation of just 4425 satellites, SpaceX will have to launch that many every five years.
However, SpaceX intends to use this to their advantage by gradually replacing inactive satellites with ones that offer superior performance. In this way, the constellation will gradually be upgraded with the addition of heavier satellites that are capable of transmitting more information, and which are placed in longer-lasting, higher orbits.
SpaceX will also need a lot of production space if they are going to meet even the more modestly-sized constellation of 4425. While the company has commenced converting one of their Starlink buildings into a prototype production facility that will assemble the first few dozen satellites, this is merely a fraction of what they will need in the long run.
Starlink is also going to be seeing competition in the coming years thanks to companies like OneWeb and Telesat, which plans to create smaller constellations that will offer service by 2021. Tech giants like Amazon and Samsung have also announced plans to deploy their own constellations, which would consist of 3,236 to 4600 broadband satellites, respectively.
As always, Musk has set a monumental task before himself and his people and it remains to be seen if they will be able to pull if off. And while Musk has been known to offer overly-optimistic timelines, which are then subject to revision, he has not yet failed to deliver. Again, it’s a “wait and see” game.
Further Reading: Teslarati