SpaceX has announced a launch target of May 2019 for the first batch of operational Starlink satellites in a sign that the proposed internet satellite constellation has reached a major milestone, effectively transitioning from pure research and development to serious manufacturing.
R&D will continue as SpaceX Starlink engineers work to implement the true final design of the first several hundred or thousand spacecraft, but a significant amount of the team’s work will now be centered on producing as many Starlink satellites as possible, as quickly as possible. With anywhere from 4400 to nearly 12,000 satellites needed to complete the three major proposed phases of Starlink, SpaceX will have to build and launch a minimum of ~2200 satellites in the next five years, averaging 37 high-performance, low-cost spacecraft built and launched every month for the next 60 months.
A shift in the Stars
Despite the major challenges ahead of SpaceX, things seem to be going quite smoothly with the current mix of manufacturing and development. As previously reported on Teslarati, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk forced the Starlink group through a painful reorganization in the summer of 2018, challenging the remaining leaders and their team to launch the first batch of operational Starlink satellites no later than June 2019. As a consequence, a sort of compromise had to be reached where one additional group of quasi-prototype satellites would be launched before settling on a truly final design for serious mass-production.
According to SpaceX filings with the FCC, the first group of operational satellites – potentially anywhere from 75 to 1000 or more – will rely on just one band (“Ku”) for communications instead of the nominal two (“Ku” and “Ka”), a change that SpaceX says will significantly simplify the first spacecraft. By simplifying them, SpaceX believes it can expedite Starlink’s initial deployment without losing a great deal of performance or interfering with constellations from competitors like OneWeb.
Somewhere along the line, SpaceX would iteratively improve each subsequent ‘generation’ of Starlink satellites until they reached the nominal performance characteristics outlined in the company’s original constellation application. Knowing SpaceX, improvements would continue for as long as lessons continued to be learned from operating hundreds and eventually thousands of orbital spacecraft.
As one concrete example, recent SpaceX FCC documents stated that the first 75 Starlink spacecraft would feature a less-optimized reentry design, meaning that a select few components will not entirely burn up during reentry, creating debris that poses a slight added risk in the eyes of regulatory bodies like the FCC. After those first 75 spacecraft are built and launched, SpaceX will introduce upgrades – already planned and designed – that will reduce the surviving reentry debris (and thus their risk to humans below) to zero.
While the FCC has yet to grant SpaceX’s requested modifications, the other major goal is to reduce the operating orbit of the first phase of 1584 satellites to 550 km (340 mi), a change that SpaceX says will drastically reduce the potential lifespan of any orbital debris in the unlikely event of their creation. A lower altitude also places a major cushion between SpaceX’s first ~1500 satellites and the orbits of several other planned constellations, including OneWeb and Telesat.
Hello, Production Hell, my old friend
Meanwhile, SpaceX’s Starlink program has begun the often painful steps of transitioning from a venture primarily focused on research and development to one focused mainly on building production lines and supply chains and manufacturing hardware. SpaceX’s Starlink facilities are currently housed in three nearby buildings located in Redmond, Washington, likely offering approximately 150,000 square feet (14,000 m^2) for a mix of office, development, and production spaces. At least one of the three non-office buildings could potentially become dedicated to production while one building – approximately 40,000 ft^2 (~3500 m^2) – has already been completely transformed into a prototype of a Starlink satellite production line, supporting manufacturing for first several dozen quasi-prototype spacecraft. For reference, OneWeb’s dedicated satellite factory will feature around 100,000 square feet of space dedicated primarily to production, while the constellation’s satellites will be roughly half as large as SpaceX’s proposed Starlink satellites (~400 kg, 880 lb).
Mass-producing spacecraft at the scale needed to build even half of those needed for the first phase of ~4400 Starlink satellites will be a feat unprecedented in the history of the space industry. Barring FCC exemptions (possible but unlikely), SpaceX needs to launch ~2200 Starlink satellites between now and April 2024. To complete the first phase, the final number of satellites rises to ~4400. Adding on a proposed constellation of very low Earth orbit (VLEO) Starlink satellites, that number rises once more to a bit less than 12,000. Meanwhile, the cost of the satellites needs to be kept as low as possible while their performance is maximized. To put it in automotive terms, SpaceX needs to find a way to do the satellite equivalent of going from building Tesla’s original Roadster to the 2020 Roadster in just a handful of iterative generations and a few years.
Perhaps SpaceX will be able to garner invaluable insight from the lessons its sister company learned during Model 3’s torturous “production hell”, in which the car company had to grow its production volume by almost a magnitude as quickly as possible. Ironically, it may even be the case that SpaceX has the easier task relative to Tesla.
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