SpaceX wants more Starlink launches to stay ahead of the competition

As 2019 approaches to a close, SpaceX is already making moves for their future in the upcoming year, 2020. Along with those plans comes more priority given over the space company’s Starlink mega constellation.

The announcement, made at the World Satellite Business Week conference in Paris, comes in a time where there is rising competition from other commercial space companies looking to provide global broadband coverage, similar to what SpaceX’s Starlink satellites aim to do.

Notably, there are a handful of companies looking to launch mega-constellations of their own:

  • Google is expected to launch a 1,000-satellite constellation to cover 75% of Earth.
  • Amazon plans to launch a constellation of 3,236 satellites known as “Project Kuiper.”
  • Boeing recently proposed a constellation of 2,900 satellites. 
  • OneWeb just received FCC authorization to launch its 720-satellite constellation, with 1,260 more to follow.
  • Telesat is working on its own constellation of 512 satellites.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, even took a shot at Jeff Bezos’ Amazon on its plans of deploying its own global broadband mega constellation, saying that they were a “copy cat.”

By next year, in hopes of maintaining its lead in the competition, SpaceX hopes that they will be able to significantly add more Starlink satellites in orbit through 24 launches, in order to build the supposedly 12,000-satellite constellation.

Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s President and Chief Operating Officer, said at the World Satellite Business Week conference, “Next year I hope we launch 24 Starlinks.” She later on detailed that the space company is aiming to at least do two launches per month to expedite Starlink to become operational.

Currently, SpaceX has 60 Starlink satellites in orbit out of the 12,000 planned constellation, which they launched on a Falcon 9 rocket back in May. The company is deorbiting at least five of those satellites — three due to malfunctions and two to test intentional de-orbit procedures.

Other than the plans SpaceX has for 2020, they’re also not just letting go what remains in 2019 as the space company has also filed for permissions from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to allow them to conduct more launches within the year.

In the request, SpaceX asked the FCC to allow it to triple the number of orbital planes, or pathways, for Starlink satellites at 550 kilometers. By using 72 orbital planes instead of 24, Starlink can reach lower latitudes more quickly and with fewer launches.

“The proposed respacing would require fewer launches of satellites — perhaps as few as half — to initiate service to the entire contiguous United States,” SpaceX told the FCC August 30. “Globally, the modification would enable more rapid coverage of all longitudes to grow toward the Equator, as well as bolstering capacity over in areas of greater population density.”

Musk in May said that Starlink will need “6 more launches of 60” satellites per launch to get “minor coverage” for the internet network, a dozen launches, or 720 satellites, are needed “for moderate” coverage,” and “economically viable” at 1,000 satellites.

SpaceX said that a tentative date for its second Starlink launch is set on October or November.

“We basically can close the network with 360 or 400 satellites, so roughly six launches,” Shotwell said Tuesday in Paris. “Hopefully we will have six launches done in the next six months or so but the final number will depend on customer missions. SpaceX will prioritize launching customers before its own broadband satellites, she said.

“If some customers move out, I’ll have some Starlink launches — maybe up to four Starlink launches this year — but we won’t push a customer out for that, so we will wait and see what the end of the year looks like and see what we can fit in.”

Notably, SpaceX is banking on the development they have achieved so far as compared to its earlier ear in 2015 and 2016 when the space company encountered constant delays on deployment because of issues on its Falcon 9 rocket.

Just last month, the international space community praised SpaceX for achieving a new milestone as one of its space capsules were able to withstand three consecutive launches to and fro the ISS, particularly because of its reusability.

In Tuesday’s conference, Shotwell boasted that SpaceX is now caught up on late missions, so much so that rockets are ready before their customer’s satellites are. “This is the first year that we are seeing that we are now ready to fly our customers before they are ready,” she said.

SpaceX previously estimated that the company could have done 24 to 25 launches in 2019, but several customer missions weren’t ready in time, she said.

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