SpaceX’s third Starlink launch in three weeks is just around the corner

SpaceX is working towards its third Starlink launch in barely more than three weeks. (Richard Angle)

SpaceX is just a few days away from Falcon 9’s third Starlink internet satellite launch in 22 days, also the second commercial Starlink rideshare mission in two weeks.

If successfully, Starlink v1.0 L9 mission will mark nearly six hundred internet satellites launched by SpaceX since the company began dedicated missions in May 2019, as well as ~530 operational v1.0 spacecraft launched since November 2019. According to SpaceX executives, the company can begin rolling out internet service to customers via “UFO on a stick” user terminals once 14 v1.0 launches have been completed, meaning that the constellation could be just five launches away from generating consistent revenue after the next batch of satellites are safely in orbit.

Meanwhile, SpaceX debuted a separate method of generating revenue from Starlink launches just ten days ago when it successfully launched three Planet imaging satellites on top of 58 new Starlink spacecraft. While the revenue from booking a few satellites to launch on Starlink missions is likely nowhere close to covering the actual material cost to SpaceX, it can certainly help offset the extraordinarily capital-intensive process of constellation build-out. Less than two weeks after SpaceX’s Starlink rideshare debut, the very next launch is scheduled to include two commercial imaging satellites – this time for BlackSky Global.

A fresh batch of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites streak overhead. (Richard Angle)

Built by Washington startup LeoStella, the two imaging satellites scheduled to launch on Starlink-9 arrived in Cape Canaveral, Florida on June 1st in time to be processed and installed on top of a stack of either 58 or 60 Starlink internet satellites.

SpaceX’s first Starlink rideshare placed three Planet SkySat satellites into orbit on June 13th. (SpaceX)
60 Starlink v1.0 satellites prepare for flight in 2019. (SpaceX)

Approximately half as large as the three ~110 kg (240 lb) SkySats SpaceX launched on June 13th, LeoStella’s first two BlackSky satellites are believed to weigh around 55 kg (~120 lb) each and are capable of imaging the Earth’s surface at a resolution of ~1m per pixel from a nominal 500 km (310 mi) orbit. BlackSky’s LeoStella contract includes another 18 such satellites, all of which could (but probably wont) launch on future Starlink missions.

Smallsat constellation operators typically aim for diversity when launching more than a handful of satellites, ensuring that a hypothetical launch vehicle failure wont delay or destroy an entire constellation. Still, according to competitor Planet, SpaceX’s rideshare pricing is so good that it has actively changed how the prolific satellite operator thinks about constellation expansion. Planet, for reference, managed to launch three SkySats – weighing ~330 kg (~730 lb) – for something like $3 million, at least 5-7 times cheaper than launching the same spacecraft on three dedicated Rocket Lab Electron rockets.

Supporting Planet’s high praise, SpaceX recently announced that it had already secured launch contracts for more than 100 small satellites less than ten months after the program debuted, potentially injecting an impressive $50 to $100 million in revenue. A large portion of those satellites are likely scheduled to launch on one of SpaceX’s dedicated semi-annual rideshare missions, the first of which is aiming to launch in December 2020, but at least one or several dozen are probably manifested on Starlink launches.

Falcon 9 booster B1051 completed its third and fourth launches on January 29th and April 22nd. (Richard Angle)

According to CEO Elon Musk, the ultimate cost of a flight-proven Falcon 9 launch can be as low as $15 million – excluding overhead but including a new upper stage, booster recovery, propellant, and other miscellaneous costs. As such, a single 60-satellite Starlink launch likely costs SpaceX less than $30 million total, meaning that an average of five small satellites (base price: $1 million per slot) manifested on a Starlink launch would save SpaceX ~17% every time.

Regardless, Falcon 9 booster B1051 is scheduled to become the third SpaceX rocket to launch five times when it lifts off for Starlink-9 no earlier than (NET) 4:39 pm EDT (20:39 UTC) on June 25th, a delay of three days from the original June 22nd target.

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SpaceX’s third Starlink launch in three weeks is just around the corner
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