SpaceX’s first batch of Starlink satellites already in Florida for launch debut

SpaceX's first two Starlink prototype satellites were launched in February 2018. (SpaceX)

According to an official statement, SpaceX’s satellite mass production is “well underway” and the first batch of operational Starlink satellites are already in Florida for their May 2019 launch debut.

Simultaneously, the FCC has granted SpaceX’s request to modify the deployment of its first 1584 Starlink satellites, permitting the company to lower their orbit from approximately 1150 km to 550 km (715 mi to 340 mi). A lower insertion orbit should improve Falcon 9’s maximum Starlink payload, while the lower operational orbit will help to further minimize any risk posed by orbital debris that could be generated by failed SpaceX satellites.

Above all else, SpaceX’s confirmation that the first batch of Starlink satellites are already in Florida drives home the reality that the company’s internet satellite constellation is about to become very real. Said constellation has long been the subject of endless skepticism and criticism, dominated by a general atmosphere of dismissal. There is no doubt that Starlink, as proposed, is an extraordinarily ambitious program that will cost billions of dollars to even begin to realize. SpaceX will have to find ways to affordably manufacture and launch ~11,900 satellites – together weighing something like 500 metric tons (1.1 million lbs) – in as few as nine years, start to finish.

As of November 2018, there are roughly 2000 satellites operating in Earth orbit, meaning that SpaceX’s full Starlink constellation would increase the number of functional satellites in orbit by a factor of almost seven. Just the first phase of Starlink (4409 satellites) would more than triple the number of working satellites in orbit. To meet the contractual requirement that SpaceX launch at least half of Starlink’s licensed satellites within six years of the FCC granting the constellation license, the company will need to launch an average of ~37 satellites per month between now and April 2024. By April 2027, SpaceX will either have to launch all ~2200 remaining Phase 1 satellites or risk forfeiture of its Starlink constellation license. Same goes for the ~7500 very low Earth orbit (VLEO) satellites making up Starlink’s second phase, albeit with their launch deadlines instead in November of 2024 and 2027.

An unofficial analysis of SpaceX’s first ~1600 Starlink satellites. (Mark Handley)

In fact, if SpaceX wants to preserve the separate FCC license for its VLEO Starlink segment, it will actually need to build and launch an average of 100 satellites per month – 20+ per week – for the next five years. In no way, shape, or form is the monthly production of 100 complex pieces of machinery unprecedented. It is, however, entirely unprecedented – and by a factor of no less than 10 – in the spaceflight and satellite industries. Accomplishing that feat will require numerous paradigm shifts in satellite design, manufacturing, and operations. It’s hard to think of anyone more up to the challenge than SpaceX but it will still be an immensely difficult and expensive undertaking.

“Baby” steps

According to SpaceX, the first 75 operational Starlink satellites will be significantly less refined than those that will follow. Most notably, they will eschew dual-band (Ku and Ka) phased array antennas, instead relying solely on Ka-band communications. The second main difference between relates to “demisability”, referring to characteristics exhibited during reentry. The first 75 spacecraft will be less refined and thus feature a handful of components that are expected to survive the rigors of reentering Earth’s atmosphere, creating a truly miniscule risk of property damage and/or human injuries. Subsequent Starlink vehicles will incorporate design changes to ensure that 100% of each satellite is incinerated during reentry, thus posing a ~0% risk on the ground.

In a sense, the first 75 Starlink satellites will be an in-depth demonstration of SpaceX’s proposed constellation. Depending on how the satellites are deployed in orbit, SpaceX’s development team could potentially have uninterrupted access to the orbiting mini-constellation. There will also be constant opportunities to thoroughly test SpaceX’s network architecture for real, including general downlink/uplink traffic, surge management, satellite handoffs, and the laser interlinks meant to join all Starlink satellites into one giant mesh network.

One of the first two prototype Starlink satellites separates from Falcon 9’s upper stage, February 2018. (SpaceX)

SpaceX has yet to announce the precise number of Starlink satellites that will be aboard Falcon 9 on the rocket’s first dedicated internal launch. More likely than not, the constraining factor will be the usable volume of SpaceX’s payload fairing, measuring 5.2m (17 ft) in diameter. For Flight 1, 10-20 satellites is a reasonable estimate. Likely to weigh around 10,000 kg (22,000 lb) total, the first Starlink payload will be delivered to a parking orbit of ~350 km (220 mi), easily allowing Falcon 9 to return to SpaceX’s Florida Landing Zone or perform a gentle landing aboard drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY). The satellites will use their own electric Hall thrusters to reach their final destination (550 km).

According to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, the first Falcon 9 fairing reuse may also happen during an internal Starlink launch, although it’s unclear if he was referring to Starlink Launch 1 (Starlink-1) or a follow-up mission later this year.

For now, SpaceX is targeting a mid-May for its first dedicated Starlink mission, set to launch from Launch Complex 40 (LC-40). Up next for LC-40 is SpaceX’s 17th operational Cargo Dragon launch (CRS-17), delayed from April 26th and April 30th to May 3rd.

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SpaceX’s first batch of Starlink satellites already in Florida for launch debut
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