Starlink: Elon Musk demoed SpaceX's internet service in a very public way

The new constellation is taking shape.

SpaceX’s Starlink has beamed internet access down to one of Twitter’s most popular accounts.

Elon Musk demonstrated the internet connectivity constellation, designed to eventually provide global internet access with high speed and low latency, by posting on his Twitter account Tuesday. The SpaceX CEO shared the following post to his followers:

Sending this tweet through space via Starlink satellite 🛰

With 28.8 million followers, Musk’s account ranks as the 60th-most followed on Twitter. In the four hours after its posting, the tweet received over 7,000 retweets and over 74,000 likes.

Musk followed up two minutes later with another post:

Musk's tweet flies through the air.
Musk's tweet flies through the air.

The two tweets seem small, but they mark one of the first major public demonstrations of one of the company’s most ambitious projects. SpaceX has requested permission to fly up to 42,000 Starlink satellites, floating through orbit at varying levels to beam down internet access to small boxes. If successful, Starlink’s revenue could far eclipse that from the company’s rocket launches, providing the funds for even more ambitious projects like a city on Mars and a planet-hopping society.

In terms of sharing space-bound achievements over Twitter, Musk is in good company. The first tweet from space was by astronaut Mike Massimino, who wrote on May 2009 that he was “enjoying the magnificent views”:

Massimino sharing from space.
Massimino sharing from space.

Even when you’re an astronaut in space, it seems it’s hard to avoid posting on Twitter.

A SpaceX Starlink satellite unfolding.
A SpaceX Starlink satellite unfolding.

SpaceX Starlink: the ambitious constellation takes shape

SpaceX’s satellite internet constellation is expected to offer lightning-fast internet practically anywhere in the world. Musk claimed in May 2018 the latency would be low enough to power video games, a key issue with previous satellite internet constellations.

The company is planning to use a lot more crafts than other projects. Where the total number of satellites in space is somewhere around 5,000, SpaceX is planning up to 12,000 for the eventual constellation. Earlier this month the company applied for permission to launch a further 30,000, bringing the total potentially up to 42,000. Each satellite weighs around 500 pounds and orbits at 550 kilometers above the Earth.

The company has also filed for permission to place up to one million Earth-based antennas on the ground to receive the satellite signal. The pizza box-sized systems use steered antenna beams to maintain a lock on the satellite in the sky.

SpaceX tested the setup with two satellites and six ground stations in February 2018. The company subsequently launched the first 60 satellites for the final constellation on a Falcon 9 rocket in May 2019.

If successful, it could offer big rewards. Internal projections have suggested the system could bring in $30 billion annual revenue by 2025, a large amount considering the entire rocket launch industry brings in around $5 billion per year. Musk has suggested the company could access three percent of the $1 trillion in total annual internet connectivity revenue, which would amount to around $50 billion.

But progress has been a tad slower than expected. SpaceX’s official Starlink website still claims that there will be between two to six Starlink launches this year. The second launch was originally scheduled for launch no earlier than October 17, but this has now been rescheduled to a more vague “TBD.”

The new plan to add an extra 30,000 satellites to the mix has also caused concern. Morgan Stanley Research released a revised forecast note earlier this month, claiming the new satellites could cost $60 billion. The forecast does not mention, however, that the Starship could launch more satellites at once and dramatically reduce the cost of these routine launches.

Starlink is shaping up to be one of SpaceX’s most ambitious projects ever, with high stakes but potentially very high rewards.

Media via Twitter, SpaceX