For the third time in less than four weeks, SpaceX has announced a new 60-satellite Starlink mission, making it the second Starlink launch scheduled in the first month of the new year.
This mission will be the company’s fifth dedicated Starlink launch, referring to the fact that SpaceX is using all of the performance of Falcon 9 for its own internal purposes. Comprised of 60 flat-packed satellites, SpaceX completed its first dedicated Starlink launch – known as Starlink v0.9 – in May 2019, followed by the first launch of 60 finalized “Starlink v1.0” satellites on November 11th, a mission known as Starlink-1.
Barring delays, the next Starlink v1.0 launch – Starlink-2 – will be SpaceX’s 14th and final launch of the year and is scheduled to lift off no earlier than 11:40 pm ET, December 30th (03:40 UTC, Dec 31), a mission the company announced on November 24th. Barely two weeks later, SpaceX announced media accreditation for Starlink-3, scheduled to launch in January 2020.
Now, just ten days after announcing Starlink-3, SpaceX has announced plans for Starlink-4. Scheduled to launch no earlier than “late-January”, Starlink-4 is now the third Starlink mission SpaceX has announced in less than four weeks, all three of which are scheduled to launch within the next six weeks.
As previously discussed on Teslarati, the fact that SpaceX announced two Starlink missions in two weeks meshed well with the company’s goal of performing up to 24 dedicated Starlink launches in 2020.
“Barely two weeks after SpaceX opened media accreditation for Starlink-2, the second launch of finalized ‘v1.0’ satellites and third dedicated launch overall, the company has announced that that late-December mission will be followed by another Starlink launch in January 2020. This tracks almost exactly with SpaceX’s reported plans for as many as 24 dedicated Starlink launches in 2020, a feat that would singlehandedly break SpaceX’s current record of 21 launches performed in a single year.”
Eric Ralph — December 10th, 2019
With SpaceX’s December 19th’s Starlink-4 announcement, it’s now abundantly clear that the company is putting its money where its mouth is with respect to what might otherwise be perceived as a Muskian pie-in-the-sky target. CEO Elon Musk is (in)famous for his tendency to sketch out timelines that probably are theoretically possible but inevitably fall prey to the numerous challenges often faced during ambitious aerospace projects.
As of now, SpaceX took a bit less than six months to go from its first 60-satellite Starlink v0.9 launch to its first Starlink v1.0 launch (Starlink-1). If schedules hold, SpaceX’s second Starlink v1.0 launch – Starlink-2 – will lift off about six weeks after Starlink-1, while Starlink-3 could follow just 1-2 weeks later in January 2020.
This is all to say that SpaceX is perfectly setting itself up for an average of two Starlink launches per month next year, so long as it continues to announce new missions every 2-3 weeks. Even if SpaceX falls short of that ambition due to any number of technical hurdles that could pop up next year, 15 or 20 Starlink launches would give the company a Starlink constellation more than a thousand satellites strong.
In recent months, SpaceX has indicated that Starlink will need at least 24 dedicated launches – 1440 satellites – to achieve uninterrupted global coverage, while as few as six launches (300 satellites) could enable service for customers in the northern US and southern Canada.
SpaceX COO and President Gwynne Shotwell believes the company can begin serving customers as early as mid-2020, ultimately maturing into an experienced internet service provider (ISP) in 2021. With almost 120 satellites already in orbit, if SpaceX can manage an average of 1.5 to 2 Starlink launches per month in 2020, the broadband internet constellation will have near-global coverage before the start of 2021.
For now, it looks like the first few months of the next decade will be jam-packed with SpaceX Starlink launches, not to mention the customer launches the company intends to complete on top of its own internal manifest.
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