SpaceX’s first finished Starlink satellites could launch in just a few months


in reports that SpaceX is on target for the committed launch debut of its first (relatively) operational Starlink satellites as early as mid-May, indicating that the company might actually meet an extremely ambitious deadline set last year by CEO Elon Musk. Although the CEO had briefly hinted that SpaceX would launch at least one additional round of prototype satellites – complementing the two launched in February 2018 – before moving to dedicated Starlink missions, all signs point to this mystery case being a committed Falcon 9 launch. Whether the aggressive mid-May schedule holds, the first launch of operational Starlink satellites would be a huge milestone for SpaceX’s low Earth orbit (LEO) internet constellation, meant to finally provide high quality, affordable broadband access to almost anyone on Earth.

Falcon Heavy and Starlink headline #SpaceX’s forthcoming manifest – as does #CRS17 cargo resupply mission to Station. #Starlink #FalconHeavy #Falcon9.ARTICLE:📸: @TheFavoritist)

— Chris G – NSF (@ChrisG_NSF) March 7, 2019

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Linking the stars in stages

In November 2018, SpaceX filed a modification to the permit it been previously granted by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) in March, requesting that it be allowed to dramatically change the first phase of its Starlink satellite constellation. In a nutshell, SpaceX wanted to find a faster and more economical way to deploy its original Starlink satellites as quickly as possible.

“[SpaceX] will use key elements from its experimental satellites, such as its sophisticated phased-array antennas and its advanced Hall-effect thrusters, as the base of a more efficient and cost-effective architecture that can rapidly accelerate deployment for the general constellation while optimizing space security. ” – Starlink FCC license modification request, SpaceX, 11/8/2018

This modification almost certainly appeared as a direct result of CEO Elon Musk’s June 2018 ultimatum, in which he reportedly fired Starlink executives deemed uncooperative in order to rapidly accelerate the constellation’s time-to-market. In actuality, based on Reuters, Musk contested the Starlink team to start launch the constellation’s first operational satellites just one year later (June 2019), an outstanding aspiration standing a couple of months after the group had launched its first two early satellite prototypes. According to a source the talked with Reuters, Musk reportedly clashed with several managers, preferring an approach that launched easier, cheaper satellites as quickly as possible instead of systematically iterating through multiple prototypes to arrive at an optimal solution the first time.

While both sides have good reasons for their stubborn preferences, Musk may well be in the right in the end of the day, especially given the sheer degree of competition to complete LEO internet constellations and start serving customers. An overly cautious approach could risk being so late to market which numerous opponents, ranging from relatively established entrants OneWeb and Telesat to more obscure companies like WorldVu and Space Norway. Barely a week ago, OneWeb finished the first successful launching of its constellation, placing six demonstration satellites in orbit to prove their technologies and reduce risk before commencing operational launches with 30+ satellites apiece. Furthermore, both Tesla and SpaceX have more or less prospered while using the identical strategy, evidenced by a culture of continuous improvement where both electric cars and rocket motors are constantly updated and improved upon. Falcon 9 famously features a bevy of versions or “blocks”, culminating recently in Falcon 9 Block 5’s leading reusability and reliability optimizations.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 family, 2010 to 2019. (Wikipedia)

A little crazy, but it works

Whether Musk can be more than a little mad, it’s almost impossible to coherently deny the fact that his strategy of delivering a minimum viable product as quickly as possible and slowly improving it over time has a polished record of success. Once more, Falcon 9 is the best and most relevant case from the context of Starlink. SpaceX’s now-workhorse rocket started in a form (Falcon 9 V1.0) nearly unrecognizable in comparison to its latest edition, featuring far less functionality, no reusability, and an older and less capable version of Merlin. Falcon 9 V1.1 was a radical – almost clean-sheet – departure from the first automobile and was significantly more powerful while also offering structures that could support grid fins and landing legs. V1.1 also moved to Merlin 1D (M1D, MVacD), optimized for more energy, efficacy, and reusability, as well as greater ease of fabrication. Several additional iterations later, and – while Block 5 does share a whole lot of heritage with its predecessors – Falcon 9 is also a near-total redesign, replacing or dramatically changing nearly all crucial systems aside from the simple structure of its aluminum alloy propellant tanks.

Both Starlink demo satellites, known as Tintin A & B, deployed and communication to Earth stations

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 22, 2018

In a nutshell, when Elon Musk and other SpaceX engineers initially conceived of Falcon 9 from the early 2000s, 2018’s Falcon 9 Block 5 was effectively the rocket they were imagining. As opposed to spending countless hundreds of millions of dollars to independently design, test, and redesign multiple prototype iterations, Musk et al built a minimum viable item, started launching payloads for paying clients (both commercial and government ), and used the company’s reputation, commercial success, and flight experience to shape Falcon 9 to the industry leader it is today. Put simply, there’s absolutely no reason to believe that the same approach won’t prove equally profitable when applied to satellites rather than rockets. While SpaceX has yet to receive an FCC grant for its Starlink modification request, the company summarized its updated strategy from the November 2018 filing. The request effectively “relocates” the first stage of its 4,425 (currently 4209) satellite LEO constellation, moving 1584 satellites from an 1100 kilometers to 550 km orbit and simplifying the design of the first operational spacecraft by using only one spectrum section (Ku-band) rather than two (Ku- and Ka-band). Hardware to exploit that additional spectrum will be developed and added to Starlink satellites and ground hardware later on. As such, irrespective of how unrefined SpaceX’s first operational Starlink satellites could be, the launch will be just as much of a milestone.

SpaceX’s first two Starlink prototype satellites are pictured here before their inaugural launch, showing off a completely utilitarian bus and several advanced components. (SpaceX)

SpaceX will also have the ability to demonstrate a truly unique aspect of Starlink which helps bolsters its competitive advantage: vertically integrated production and launch of its satellites. According to FCC permit requests filed last month, SpaceX plans to conduct the first dedicated launching from its Florida-based LC-40 pad, with the Falcon 9 booster landing more than 600 kilometers (370 mi) offshore on drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY). Assuming SpaceX is targeting the 550 km orbit described in its Starlink license modification, this allows the payload mass to be approximately baselined alongside the company’s Iridium NEXT assignments, which sent a bit less than 10,000 kg (22,000 lb) of satellite and dispenser to an orbit of ~650 km, a relatively similar orbit and mission concept. But, Falcon 9’s Iridium NEXT drone boat recoveries typically happened more like 250 km (155 mi) from the West Coast, suggesting that SpaceX’s inaugural dedicated Starlink launching will require significantly more functionality out of the rocket.

Arianespace’s Ariane 6 is shown here with a massive proposed dispenser for OneWeb’s net satellites. SpaceX’s own solution will likely look a bit similar.

In other words, Starlink’s operational debut could very well be the heaviest payload SpaceX has yet to launch on a single assignment. Weighing less than 500 kg apiece with a dispenser (per Iridium NEXT) around 10% of the total payload mass, SpaceX will likely launch anywhere from 20-40 Starlink satellites at the same time, depending on the last mass of these first spacecraft and their custom-built dispenser. While flaws from the late-April into mid-May launch target are arguably quite likely, the fact that the first operational Starlink launch is tentatively scheduled less than half a year away bodes very well for tangible constellation progress in 2019.

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