For the third time ever, one of SpaceX’s “autonomous spaceport drone ships” has successfully transited the Panama Canal on its way to a new home port.
This time around, similar to drone ship Just Read The Instructions’ (JRTI) original 2015 journey from a Louisiana shipyard to Port of Los Angeles, drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) headed west through the Panama Canal on June 25th, 2021. Unlikely JRTI, though, OCISLY was already operational and had supported almost four dozen successful Falcon booster landings before SpaceX decided to move the storied drone ship from Port Canaveral, Florida to Port of Long Beach, California.
A bit less than four years after Just Read The Instructions debuted on the West Coast, SpaceX sent the drone ship back east in August 2019, leaving the company’s Vandenberg Air/Space Force Base (VAFB) launch pad without an at-sea booster recovery capability ever since. Perhaps unsurprisingly, SpaceX has only launched once out of VAFB in the last two years. Now, though, the company intends to restart West Coast launches with a vengeance – and soon.
SpaceX’s primary motivation: a growing need to deliver a large number of Starlink satellites to polar – rather than semi-equatorial – orbits. Just last month, SpaceX’s 28th dedicated Starlink launch carried the constellation past the 1600-satellite milestones for the first time ever. Comprised of a little over 4400 satellites split between five orbital ‘shells,’ that milestone meant that the Starlink constellation’s first phase is now more than a third complete.
It also means that SpaceX has effectively finished the first of those five shells once all ~1584 satellites finish raising their orbits. A second nearly identical shell of 1584 satellites will eventually complete the constellation’s semi-equatorial foundation. In principle, those two shells of ~3200 satellites are enough to serve internet to ~99% of humanity.
Polar satellites will allow SpaceX to truly provide internet anywhere on Earth. Perhaps most importantly, polar Starlink satellites with optical (i.e. laser) interlinks would allow the constellation to serve uninterrupted, high-quality internet to all aircraft and ships – two major connectivity markets currently trapped with solutions that are either offer a terrible user experience or are extraordinarily expensive (and still mediocre).
Once operational on the West Coast, drone ship OCISLY should allow SpaceX to begin fleshing out Starlink’s polar shells with dedicated launches almost immediately. OCISLY is currently on tracked to arrive at Port of Long Beach around July 6th, leaving SpaceX more than three weeks to prepare for a polar Starlink launch before the month is out. Recently, FCC filings have also indicated that SpaceX intends to perform dedicated polar Starlink launches from California and Florida – though the latter missions will take a significant performance hit to make that happen.
According to Musk, Starlink is about six weeks away from achieving uninterrupted global coverage (excluding the poles) and six months away from offering uninterrupted coverage anywhere on Earth. It’s unclear how much of Starlink’s three polar shells will have to be completed before the constellation can truly provide uninterrupted coverage to those living in Earth’s polar regions but it’s likely that achieving that feat in six months will be a challenge.
Accounting for the inherently less efficient nature of polar launches and assuming approximately 50 Starlink satellites per polar launch, SpaceX will likely need to complete 12-20 polar missions to achieve full global coverage. Though unlikely, both of SpaceX’s first dedicated polar Starlink launches from the East and West Coasts could potentially occur in late July or early August.