SpaceX’s Starlink launch debut to orbit dozens of satellites later this month

SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell has revealed that the company’s first dedicated Starlink launch is scheduled for May 15th and will involve “dozens” of satellites.

Corroborated by several sources, the actual number of Starlink satellites that will be aboard Falcon 9 is hard to believe given that it is a satellite constellation’s first quasi-operational launch. Suffice it to say, if all spacecraft reach orbit in good health, SpaceX will easily become the operator and owner of one of the top five largest commercial satellite constellations in the world with a single launch. Such an unprecedentedly ambitious first step suggests that the perceived practicality of SpaceX’s Starlink ambitions may need to be entirely reframed going forward.

From 0 to 100

In short, it’s hard to exaggerate just how much of a surprise it is to hear that SpaceX’s very first Starlink launch – aside from two prototypes launched in Feb. 2018 – will attempt to place “dozens” of satellites in orbit. Competitor OneWeb, for example, conducted its first launch in February 2019, placing just five satellites in orbit relative to planned future launches with 20-30. To go from 2(ish) to “dozens” in a single step will break all sorts of industry standards/traditions.

Despite the ~15 months that have passed since that first launch, SpaceX’s Starlink team has really only spent the last 6-9 months in a phase of serious mass-production buildup. As of now, the company has no dedicated satellite factory – space in Hawthorne, CA is far too constrained. Instead, the design, production, and assembly of Starlink satellites is being done in 3-4 separate buildings located throughout the Seattle/Redmond area.

One of SpaceX’s Seattle properties.

SpaceX’s Starlink team has managed to transition almost silently from research and development to serious mass-production (i.e. dozens of satellites) in the space of about half a year. The dozens of spacecraft scheduled to launch on SpaceX’s first dedicated mission – likely weighing 200-300 kg (440-660 lb) each – have also managed to travel from Seattle to Cape Canaveral in the last few months and may now be just a few days away from fairing encapsulation.

To some extent, the first flight-ready batch of “dozens” of satellites are still partial prototypes, likely equivalent to the second round of flight testing mentioned by CEO Elon Musk last year. This group of spacecraft will have no inter-satellite laser (optical) links, a feature that would transform an orbiting Starlink constellation into a vast mesh network. According to FCC filings, the first 75 satellites will be of the partial-prototype variety, followed soon after by the first spacecraft with a more or less finalized design and a full complement of hardware.

If this is just step one…

Meanwhile, Shotwell – speaking at the Satellite 2019 conference – suggested that SpaceX could launch anywhere from two to six dedicated Starlink missions this year, depending on the performance of the first batch. Put a slightly different way, take the “dozens” of satellites she hinted at, multiply that number by 6, and you’ve arrived at the number of spacecraft she believes SpaceX is theoretically capable of producing and delivering in the next 7.5 months.

“Dozens” implies no less than two dozen or a bare minimum of 144 satellites potentially built and launched before the year is out. However, combined with a target orbit of 450 km (280 mi) and a planned drone ship booster recovery more than 620 km (385 mi) downrange, 36, 48, or 60 satellites seem far more likely. Tintin A/B – extremely rough, testbed-like prototypes – were about 400 kg (~900 lb) each.

As an example, SpaceX’s eight Iridium NEXT satellite launches had payloads of more than 10,000 kg (22,000 lb), were launched to an orbit around 630 km (390 mi), and required a upper stage coast and second burn on-orbit. Further, Iridium missions didn’t get the efficiency benefit that Starlink will by launching east along the Earth’s rotational axis. Despite all that, Falcon 9 Block 5 boosters were still able to land less than 250 km (155 mi) downrange after Iridium launches. Crew Dragon’s recent launch debut saw Falcon 9 place the >13,000 kg (28,700 lb) payload into a 200 km (125 mi) orbit with a drone ship landing less than 500 km (310 mi) downrange, much of which was margin to satisfy safety requirements.

Starlink-1’s target orbit is thus a third lower than Iridium NEXT, while its drone ship will be stationed more than 2.5 times further downrange. Combined, SpaceX’s first Starlink payload will likely weigh significantly more than ~13,000 kg and may end up being the heaviest payload the company has yet to launch.

An Arianespace render of a OneWeb launch offers the best unofficial look yet at what SpaceX’s first Starlink launch might look like. (Ariane)

Assuming a payload mass of ~14,000 kg (~31,000 lb) at launch, a worst-case scenario with ~400 kg spacecraft and a 2000 kg dispenser would translate to 30 Starlink satellites. Cut their mass to 300 kg and the dispenser to 1000 kg and that rises to ~45 satellites. Drop even further to 200 kg apiece and a single recoverable Falcon 9 launch could place >60 satellites in orbit.

Of course, this entirely ignores the elephant in the room: the usable volume of SpaceX’s standard Falcon payload fairing. It’s unclear how SpaceX would fit 24 – let alone 60 – high-performance satellites into said fairing without severely constraining their design and capabilities. SpaceX’s solution to this problem will effectively remain unanswered until launch, assuming the company is willing to provide some sort of press release and/or offer a live view of spacecraft deployment on their webcast. Given the cutthroat nature of competition with the likes of OneWeb, Telesat, LeoSat, and others, this is not guaranteed.

Pictured here after its second launch in January 2019, Falcon 9 B1049.3 is the likeliest candidate for Starlink-1. (Pauline Acalin)

At the end of the day, such a major leap into action bodes extremely well for SpaceX’s ability to realize its ambitious Starlink constellation, and do so fast. For those on Earth without reliable internet access or any access at all, the faster Starlink – and competing constellations, for that matter – can be realized, the sooner all of humanity can enjoy the many benefits connectivity can bring. For those that sit under the thumb of monopolistic conglomerates like Comcast and Time Warner Cable, relief will be no less welcome.

Stay tuned as we get closer to Starlink-1’s May 15th launch date. Up next is a static fire of the mission’s Falcon 9 rocket, perhaps just two or three days from now.

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