First reported by SpaceNews, in attendance at the 2019 World Satellite Business Week in Paris, France, SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell says that the company has plans for as many as 24 dedicated Starlink launches in 2020.
This news comes less than four months after SpaceX’s inaugural Starlink launch – placing 60 prototype spacecraft in orbit on May 24th – and roughly one and a half months before a planned burst of 2-4 more Starlink missions in the final months of 2019. By leveraging the proven reusability of Falcon 9 boosters and probable reusability of Falcon payload fairings, Shotwell believes that the company can simultaneously launch dozens of Starlink missions while still regularly launching customer spacecraft next year.
Extrapolating from SpaceX’s 60-satellite Starlink launch debut, 24 dedicated Starlink missions launched via Falcon 9 rockets would translate to at least 1440 satellites placed in orbit in 2020. In a best-case scenario, SpaceX also wants to launch another four missions before the end of 2019, potentially leaving the company with more than 1700 satellites in orbit by the end of next year.
In roughly 18 months, SpaceX could thus single-handedly almost double the number of functional satellites in orbit – relative to the ~2000 currently under control. Of course, SpaceX is famous for eventually accomplishing almost every problem it sets its gaze on, but not without delays. Even achieving 12 launches – half as many as hoped for – would be a huge milestone, giving SpaceX control of the largest satellite constellation ever launched, capable of supporting an instantaneous bandwidth of ~18 terabits per second (Tbps).
Although it sounds (and is) incredibly ambitious, the reality is that that launch rate is just shy of a necessity for SpaceX to retain Starlink’s two FCC launch and operations licenses. It’s not 100% accurate, as the constellations – one around 1000 km and the other around 350 km – were granted licenses about half a year apart, but SpaceX essentially needs to launch half of its ~11,900-satellite constellation by November 2024. This gives SpaceX a little over five years from the time of this article’s publishing to launch almost 6000 satellites, translating to roughly 3.3 satellites per day or 100 satellites per month.
At 24 annual launches of 60 satellites apiece, SpaceX would average exactly 120 satellites per month, leaving a decent margin for failed or delayed launches and dead satellites. Nevertheless, although it’s extremely unlikely that the FCC would retract SpaceX’s Starlink launches after the company has launched thousands of satellites, those licenses also come with a requirement that the second half of the constellation be launched within seven years of receipt.
In the event that SpaceX manages to launch almost 6000 satellites by November 2024, this means that the company will have to almost double its effective launch cadence to fully complete Starlink by November 2027. It’s safe to say that, short of total corporate dissolution, SpaceX’s next-generation Starship launch vehicle will be operational by 2024, but in the event that Falcon 9 is still the only practical option, SpaceX would need to average almost three Starlink launches per month.
According to SpaceX, approximately a third of those 24 Starlink launches will include a small amount of extra capacity for small satellites seeking affordable access to space. Following demand that apparently far outstretched SpaceX’s anticipated interest in a new Smallsat Program, the company significantly widened its scope and lowered the base price to just $1M for up to 200 kg (440 lb) of cargo, while also announcing that some Starlink launches would include latent capacity. Public schedules show that as many as 9 Starlink missions could feature additional smallsats in 2020, followed by up to 13 in 2021.
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