SpaceX could upgrade Starlink constellation with tens of thousands of satellites

A general overview of Starlink's bus, launch stack and solar array. (SpaceX)

Filings and an official statement confirm that SpaceX could eventually build a Starlink internet constellation with tens of thousands of satellites, several times more than the company’s already ambitious plans.

“As demand escalates for fast, reliable internet around the world, especially for those where connectivity is non-existent, too expensive or unreliable, SpaceX is taking steps to responsibly scale Starlink’s total network capacity and data density to meet the growth in users’ anticipated needs.”  

SpaceX – October 15th, 2019

Uncovered through regulatory filings published on the International Telecommunications Union’s (ITU) eSubmission portal, the FCC filed documents hinting at plans for tens of thousands of new communications satellites. It was eventually confirmed by the ITU and eventually the company itself that SpaceX was behind the new filings, altogether accounting for up to 30,000 additional Starlink satellites.

SpaceX’s first 60 Starlink satellites were placed in orbit by a Falcon 9 rocket on May 23rd. (SpaceX)

Prior to this new filing, the ceiling for SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet constellation was set around 11,900 spacecraft – 4400 in several low Earth orbits (LEO) and another 7500 in very low orbit (VLEO). Put simply, even the most ardent supporters and potential benefactors of such a colossal satellite constellation have never taken those particular numbers all that seriously – 12,000 satellites is nearly six times as many operational spacecraft currently in orbit.

To build even a fraction as many satellites would take resources on the order of a small country without a revolution in satellite manufacturing and mass production. Assuming a cost as low as $5 million per satellite (more or less unprecedented), launching just the first 4400-satellite segment would cost SpaceX a minimum of $22 billion, while the full 11,900 would be more like $60 billion.

B1049.3 lifts off with the first 60 v0.9 Starlink satellites. (SpaceX)

And yet, as improbable as it sounds next to today’s satellite production status quo, CEO Elon Musk indicated that SpaceX’s very first 60 Starlink prototypes – launch in May 2019 – cost less than the launch itself. This implies that the cost of each of those beta spacecraft was probably $1 million at most and likely closer to $500,000 apiece. Around that price point, launching thousands of relatively high-performance satellites becomes far more reasonable, even if the figures are still substantial.

4400 satellites would become ~$2 billion, while ~12,000 satellites would become $6 billion. Combined with SpaceX’s new ITU filings, the current maximum of ~42,000 satellites might cost something like $20 billion – a huge price tag, no doubt, but far from impossible. Important to note is that SpaceX almost certainly plans to begin drawing significant income from its Starlink constellation after as few as several hundred satellites have been launched. SpaceX has already raised more than $1 billion to get Starlink close to that point.

A partial overview of SpaceX’s unorthodox Starlink satellite bus. (SpaceX)

Also critical is the fact that building hundreds (let alone thousands) of satellites annually will allow SpaceX to tap into economies of scale quite literally unprecedented in the history of satellite manufacturing, meaning that it’s hard to accurately judge how low the per-satellite cost might eventually fall. Regardless, at the moment, SpaceX’s filings for an additional 30,000 possible satellites are undoubtedly more of an act of “just in case” than a sign of firm plans.

In the present, SpaceX has plans for as many as four additional Starlink v1.0 launches between now and the end of 2019, although it looks likely that that may shrink to 1-2 missions. The next Starlink mission (deemed Starlink 1) is expected no earlier than late-October or November.

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"Eric Ralph : @twitter.com/13ericralph31 I write about space, among other things.."
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