SpaceX: why Starlink depends on Starship to fuel the future of humanity

The two projects are interwoven.

The Asahi Shimbun/The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

Starlink and Starship both have similar-sounding names, but SpaceX's major projects have more in common than meets the eye.

Elon Musk, CEO of the space-faring firm, explained last week how the company's satellite internet constellation is tied to the success of the upcoming Starship vehicle. Speaking at the Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Musk told the audience that "the cost of the satellite has dropped below the cost of transporting it to orbit" using the existing Falcon 9 rocket.

"We really need Starship to carry Starlink in order to get the total delivered cost to be much better than it is today," Musk said.

It sounds like simple business sense, but it ties into SpaceX's broader plans for the future. The company currently earns money by launching satellites, but this industry as a whole is estimated to bring in around $5 billion per year revenue. Starship is being designed to send humans to Mars and establish a city, but Musk has pegged a Mars city's cost as somewhere around $100 billion and $10 trillion. SpaceX could raise the money from Starlink, which is competing in the internet access market worth around $1 trillion per year. If it could capture around three and five percent of that, it would greatly eclipse its current revenue from rocket launches.

With Musk's latest comments, it's clear that Starlink needs Starship as much as Starship needs Starlink.

SpaceX started launching Starlink satellites in May 2019. It has so far launched five batches of 60 satellites, totaling 300, and a sixth launch is planned for March 2020. Service is expected to start for the northern United States and Canada this year, with the rest of the world expected in 2021. But the company has big ambitions, and it's applied for permission to fill the sky with up to 42,000 satellites. These craft are designed to offer high speed, low latency internet that provides access to anywhere with a line of sight to the satellites with a more responsive connection than current offerings.

But launching those satellites isn't cheap. A Falcon 9 launch is priced on SpaceX's website as costing $62 million. The company can bring down the costs to its operations by recovering parts of the rocket, and its booster recovery capabilities have rapidly increased since it successfully landed the first one in 2014.

Starlink also needs to launch a lot of satellites to continue providing service. While also filling out the planned constellation, SpaceX will need to replace old craft. Musk suggested in May 2019 that each one will last somewhere around four or five years before deorbiting.

Starship could take these launches to a whole new level. It's designed for full reusability and can lift a whole lot more. Where the Falcon 9 can send 50,265 pounds to low-Earth orbit and the Falcon Heavy 140,660 pounds, Starship can lift over 220,000 pounds.

The design is also expected to prove cost-efficient. During a fireside chat at the Los Angeles Air Force Base in November 2019, Musk said that “we consider our operational costs would probably be around $2 million per flight.”

That, coupled with a high production output, makes Starship for Starlink a no-brainer. Musk explained at the recent event that SpaceX was producing satellites faster than it can launch them.

Perhaps little wonder that Musk already suggested in October 2019 that the first payload for Starship would be "probably Starlink & some fun things." Having launched his red Tesla Roadster into space on the Falcon Heavy's February 2018 maiden voyage, Musk will have to find something else to launch when Starship takes its first mission sometime around 2021.

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