The day before SpaceX aced its eighth Starlink launch in three months, President and COO Gwynne Shotwell implied that the company’s constellation of satellites could achieve “full [global] connectivity” just a handful of months from now.
Speaking at Satellite 2021’s “LEO Digital Forum” on April 6th, Shotwell revealed that SpaceX hopes to cross that milestone a few months after a total of 28 operational Starlink launches have been completed. Around 25 hours after her panel appearance, SpaceX launched its 490th Starlink satellite of the year, more or less wrapping up the first quarter of 2021.
SpaceX’s April 7th Starlink launch and booster landing was the 23rd successful launch of operational ‘v1.0’ satellites since they began flying in November 2019. All told, of the 1383 operational satellites launched by SpaceX in those 17 months, some 1369 are still in orbit, at least 1356 are functioning as expected, and more than 900 have reached their final orbits and are operational. Another 400 appear to be in long-term parking orbits dozens to hundreds of kilometers below their operational 550 km (~340 mi) ceiling, the purpose of which is unclear.
Once the 400-500 satellites now in low parking orbits reach whatever orbital parameters they’re waiting on, it’s unlikely to take more than two or three months for them to boost up to an operational altitude. Starlink-23 added another 60 around 250 km (155 mi). All told just the satellites SpaceX has in parking orbits are several times larger than the next largest constellations.
Given Shotwell’s 28-launch comment and a general idea of SpaceX’s 2021 launch cadence targets, it’s possible to extrapolate to a reasonably accurate timeline for the constellation to reach a point of “full connectivity globally” – albeit with a few caveats. First, it’s unclear what exactly the SpaceX President and COO meant with that phrase, given that SpaceX will require a substantial number of polar orbit satellites before Starlink can truly cover every single inch of Earth’s surface.
If Shotwell is including one or more dedicated polar Starlink launches in her rough 28-launch estimate, Starlink’s global connectivity timeline is effectively a complete mystery until SpaceX offers more information on its plans to build out that segment of its constellation. If she isn’t accounting for total polar coverage and means something akin to “full connectivity” for ~99% of the global population, though, it’s a simple task to estimate when Starlink might reach that milestone.
While SpaceX appears to be standing down Starlink launches for around two weeks to focus fully on Crew Dragon’s second operational astronaut launch (Crew-2), the company is expected to jump right back to rapid-fire Starlink launches in the last week or so of April. If, from that point on, SpaceX matches its Q1 2021 average and manages one Starlink mission every ~12 days, Starlink-28 could launch in late-June – and possibly even earlier. From then on, it’s just a matter of verifying each satellite’s health in space before allowing the spacecraft to boost up to their operational orbits.
In other words, barring unprecedented numbers of early satellite failures or unusually long orbit-raising periods, it’s likely that SpaceX will have enough operational satellites – around 1700 – for near-total, uninterrupted Starlink coverage of the inhabited world by the end of Q3 (September) 2021.