Starlink Launch: Elon Musk's Space Internet Bet Will Soon Take a Huge Leap

SpaceX is getting ready to launch 60 test satellites at once.

by James Dennin
GIF from a video, courtesy of Mark Handley

On Thursday night, if all goes according to plan, a Falcon 9 rocket packed to the brim with 60 test satellites will take off from SpaceX’s Pad 40 launch site in Cape Canaveral. It’s SpaceX’s biggest-ever payload, and the next step in CEO Elon Musk’s grand vision to surround the planet with a constellation of internet-beaming satellites.

The launch was originally planned for last Wednesday, and was pushed back a week due to high upper level winds, and so that engineers could conduct some last minute software updates and final checks. The launch window will open Thursday evening at 10:30 p.m. EST, and close at about midnight, according SpaceX’s launch page. A backup launch window will start at the same exact time on Friday, May 24.

Thursday’s launch is looking extremely likely, according to the latest Air Force weather predictions reported by Florida Today. The agency puts the odds of a successful takeoff at around 90 percent, with the chief risk being strong low-level winds that could interfere with the takeoff.

Starlink's eventual goal is to provide satellite based internet coverage using 12,000 satellites. 

Unsplash / NASA

Starlink Launch: How the Launch Will Work

All 60 test satellites will be loaded aboard a Falcon 9 rocket whose first stage has already been used twice before, once during the recent Telstar 18 VANTAGE mission in September 2018 and also during the Iridium-8 mission held in January. At about 440km above the earth, the first stage will separate and the satellites will begin to deploy, using the Krypton-powered Hall thrusters onboard to ascend to their eventual operational orbit at a height of 550 km.

After deployment, arguably the most exciting part of the mission will take place. At this point, the Falcon 9’s first stage will descend back to earth and land on the Of Course I Still Love You drone ship. These landings have often been particularly dramatic. SpaceX has executed this maneuver before, last month landing the Falcon Heavy’s third core on the drone ship for the first time. But the video feeds from the ship, which is often stationed up to several hundred miles off shore, are unreliable. Watching SpaceX nail these landings perfectly, then, is still a rare pleasure for space enthusiasts.

The Falcon 9 being used in Thursday's launch, packed with 60 test satellites. 


Starlink Mission Objectives

The main goal of this launch is for SpaceX to work out potential kinks. The satellites being deployed in Thursday’s launch, though still filled with sensitive hardware, don’t contain inter-satellite links, explained SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell during a recent press conference. This means they’re still test class, though Musk has also clarified that they are closer to the eventual production design than the two demo satellites SpaceX has been experimenting with since last February.

Sending 60 test satellites into orbit at once is meant to refine the process for forming what could eventually become a 12,000 satellite constellation that circles the entire globe. Musk also said on Twitter that SpaceX engineers expect “much” to “likely go wrong.” SpaceX estimates that roughly 6 launches of 60 satellites would be needed to provide minor coverage, and 12 launches — so about 720 satellites in total — would be needed to provide moderate coverage. That’s a lot of launches, so it makes sense that SpaceX wants to refine the process as much as possible before sending too much fancy space tech into orbit.

If Thursday’s launch goes well, then Shotwell estimates that SpaceX could pull off between two and six other Starlink-related launches this year. Assuming Starlink launches bats 1.000 — a big if, to be sure — then SpaceX could have the early beginnings of a working Starlink array by the end of the year. Back in May, the FCC approved a revised plan to launch 4,409 satellites, with further approvals expected if these early tests go well.

How Starlink Will Eventually Work

Once they’re operational and in orbit, the Starlink constellation will communicate with earth-bound terminals using steered antenna beams. Back in February, SpaceX petitioned the FCC to install roughly a million of the pizza box-sized terminals worldwide. Because these signals move through a vacuum as opposed to the fibre optic cables modern internet infrastructure uses now, some researchers estimate that communications could travel up to 50 percent faster.

At least according to Musk, the quality of the internet will also be high. Using the two test satellites that have been launched already, Musk says that SpaceX engineers have been able to stream internet with high bandwidth and extremely low latency of around 25 milliseconds, fast enough to stream 4K video and play quick-reaction video games like Counter Strike.

Most importantly, this infrastructure will be able to be maintained without filling the lower atmosphere with hunks of useless metal. SpaceX says that already, 95 percent of the components in Starlink satellites disintegrate upon re-entry into the atmosphere, with the goal of achieving 100 percent.

SpaceX has been approved to put roughly 12,000 Starlink satellites in orbit.

Mark Handley / University College London

Why Starlink Could Solve the Digital Divide

Whether SpaceX is the first to install it or not, space internet would solve a lot of earthbound problems.

Many sections of the earth remain hard to reach for fibre optic cables and other necessary internet infrastructure, contributing to the so-called digital divide. An alarming 2018 report by the tech giant Microsoft estimated that 162.8 million people in the U.S. aren’t using broadband internet speeds, despite claims by the FCC that service is widely available. In some rural areas, access to good internet reaches as little as 2 percent of the population.

Without a solution, this problem will likely get worse. While it’s true that 5G internet infrastructure is much easier to install, its improvement upon 4G’s download times is many orders of magnitude faster, meaning it could actually make the problem worse. Imagine trying to keep up in a class which can download whatever movies they want in a second or two while you’re still schlepping out to a Blockbuster.

As the economy grows increasingly software focused, access to good internet increasingly means access to education, services, and good jobs. For SpaceX, then, the stakes for Thursday’s launch are certainly high. But for people and families on the wrong side of the digital divide, the stakes are even higher.

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