SpaceX’s deploys 60-satellite Starlink blob, all spacecraft successfully phone home

60 v0.9 Starlink satellites ahead of their May 2019 debut. (SpaceX)

SpaceX’s first 60 “production-design” Starlink satellites have been successfully placed in orbit, kicking off a constellation beta test at an unprecedented scale. According to CEO Elon Musk, all spacecraft also managed to successfully ‘phone home’ after separation.

The company’s Redmond satellite operators still need to verify that all spacecraft are functional and healthy after a Falcon 9 launch and chaotic deployment from the rocket’s upper stage, but the riskiest part of the mission is now arguably behind SpaceX. What remains is essentially a massive, hardware-rich test of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation, ranging from granular flight testing of individual components to an effective simulation of a full constellation’s operations.

In support of those tests, SpaceX has already received permission from the FCC to begin setting up a number of ground stations and user terminals across the US. Testing will begin on a relatively small scale but will rapidly expand as FCC permissions roll in and the basics of the first 60 Starlink satellites’ operational capabilities are verified.

According to sources familiar with the matter who spoke under the condition of anonymity, SpaceX will most likely begin commercial testing of its Starlink constellation much like Tesla, using its significant workforce (~6000 people) as beta testers. The sources didn’t know how many launches it would take before that internal testing kicks off, but it’s safe to say that SpaceX will need at least a few hundred satellites in orbit to provide uninterrupted broadband service over a few swaths of the US.

A wild satellite ride

A little over one hour after launch, SpaceX deployed all 60 Starlink satellites simultaneously, producing a bizarre blob of spacecraft that appeared to slowly begin to separate, almost like a zipper unzipping. CEO Elon Musk noted on May 15th that there was “a chance” that satellites would bump into each other during deployment. After watching the actual act, it’s safe to say that many of the 60 satellites almost certainly bumped into each other after separating from Falcon 9, albeit very slowly.

60 Starlink satellites deployed from Falcon 9’s upper stage in a truly bizarre fashion, moving away from the rocket like an 18 ton blob of spacecraft. (SpaceX)

Starlink’s deployment mechanism is easily the most SpaceX-reminiscent thing SpaceX has ever done. It certainly isn’t pretty and your author would love nothing more than to immediately head to orbit to evenly distribute the satellites (oh, the asymmetry 😭). And yet, it seems likely that the chaotic blob deployment will ultimately be a success, getting rid of the wasted mass of a dispenser, speeding up deployment, and offloading the need for accuracy from Falcon 9 S2 to the satellites themselves.

Starlink satellites are propelled by krypton-fueled electric thrusters, also known as ion or Hall Effect thrusters. (SpaceX)
A render of a full stack of Starlink satellites. (SpaceX)

By designing the satellites from the ground up to handle minor bumps and more significant mechanical loads during launch and deployment, SpaceX can forgo the hassle of treating each spacecraft as if they’re made out of fine china, fairly routine for most modern satellites.

By using krypton instead of xenon, SpaceX can cut the cost of fueling its electric Starlink thrusters by a factor of 5-10, potentially saving ~$50,000 or more per satellite. By building four large phased-array antennas directly into the body of each satellite, the potential failure of antenna actuators and precision pointing mechanisms can be entirely removed as a possibility. In general, SpaceX has taken almost every single industry-standard process and flipped them entirely on their heads, systematically ignoring many unwritten rules (or written, for that matter) and forging their own unique style of satellite development.

By forgoing a great many proven methods and rules of satellite design and production, failure is certainly a possibility. However, the potential benefits of success are vast. Only time will tell which direction SpaceX’s radical Starlink satellite design ends up going.

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Eric Ralph: Eric Ralph is Teslarati's senior spaceflight reporter and has been covering the industry in some capacity for almost half a decade, largely spurred in 2016 by a trip to Mexico to watch Elon Musk reveal SpaceX's plans for Mars in person. Aside from spreading interest and excitement about spaceflight far and wide, his primary goal is to cover humanity's ongoing efforts to expand beyond Earth to the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere.
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