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SpaceX’s Starlink high-speed internet satellites alive and well in orbit

Comments from SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and other executives have confirmed that the company’s first two prototype Starlink internet satellites are healthy and progressing through a range of tests three months after launch.

Designed to flesh out a broad range of technologies and flight-test SpaceX’s ability to design, manufacture, and operate advanced communications satellites, what little public information available on the satellite constellation indicates that the test program is thus far a success. While it can be argued that SpaceX already has years of experience building and operating satellites in the form of Cargo Dragon and Falcon 9’s upper stage, small high-throughput communications satellites are a dramatic leap outside of the company’s demonstrated comfort zones. As such, the fact that the first true standalone Starlink prototypes have survived several months in orbit and managed to demonstrate at least a few of their complex technologies with some success.

A flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 launched two Starlink prototype satellites and the PAZ earth-imaging satellite in February 2018. (SpaceX)

Musk noted in a tweet that the first two Starlink satellites were doing “pretty good” and “closing the link to ground with phased array at high bandwidth, low latency (25 ms).” He also stated that there would likely be another hardware revision before settling on a final design for Starlink, indicating that at least one more batch of improved prototype satellites will likely be launched sometime this year.

Given the sheer number of new technologies built in-house for Starlink, ranging from optical (laser) interlink terminals to electric ion propulsion systems, it should come as little surprise that the satellite internet constellation team intends to continue iterative improvement and testing before transferring focus to mass-production and consumer operations.

Previously mentioned by Musk during Tesla’s Q1 2018 conference call, the CEO does not expect initial Starlink service to be available to consumers (and perhaps even to internal R&D teams at Tesla) for at least “three years”, indicating the beginning of operational connectivity no earlier than 2021 or 2022. This timeline allows SpaceX at least another 6-12 months of experimentation and flight testing before the first true production runs and launches would need to begin, giving the company roughly 12-18 months to build and launch the minimum of ~800 satellites required to begin offering consumers internet access.

A couple weeks after the FCC officially approved SpaceX’s full Starlink constellation in March 2018, SpaceX’s Patricia Cooper and Bryon Hargis met with several FCC commissioners and their staff to discuss “the operation of two experimental SpaceX satellites launched on February 22, 2018, including initial results from those test operations.” While about as vague as can be (PDF), this suggested that initial Starlink test operations were proceeding to some extent, whether that procession was nominal or otherwise. Musk’s comments approximately a month later corroborate that vague confirmation of success and reinforce the observation that SpaceX is continuing to make gradual but steady progress on their internet constellation ambitions.

SpaceX’s Starlink high-speed internet satellites alive and well in orbit

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