More details of SpaceX’s Starlink plans came out this week, with a May 15 launch a larger scale test of hardware and satellite deployment and first production satellites anticipated to fly later this year. But many questions remain.
SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell said the May 15 Starlink launch will carry “dozens of satellites,” according to Twitter and Space News coverage at the Satellite 2019 show. The launch will demonstrate deployment of multiple satellites and integrating them into a larger network. No volume or mass figures were given for the second generation of test satellites, which have onboard downlink Ka-band antennas and electric propulsion but no optical (laser) intersatellite links necessary for the mesh-network design to relay data between satellites as necessary.
Later this year, depending on test results, anywhere from two to six more Starlink launches could take place with production satellites containing the necessary optical equipment for intersatellite links. Launch will take place using excess capacity. SpaceX expanded its manufacturing resources to support 40 rockets a year, but its paying customer manifest is anticipated to be 18 to 21 launches for 2019.
SpaceX Starlink’s initial deployment is expected to number nearly 1,600 satellites at an altitude of 550 kilometers, with Ku-band links between satellites and the ground and potential data rates of up to a gigabit per second. The company has requested a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) license to operate up to one million ground terminals, with a flat-panel phased array antenna about one meter wide.
Future generations/iterations of Starlink will add on Ka-band for more bandwidth along with more overall frequencies and satellites, with a second wave of up to 4,400 satellites and the potential to orbit up to 12,000 satellites. FCC filings indicate SpaceX has likely built 78 or more first generation satellites, with a newer design iteration designed to fully burn-up in the atmosphere without any life-threatening debris remaining.
Questions remain as to how much money SpaceX needs to continue building Starlink, with some financial reports suggesting the company had only raised $40-50 million of an initially sought $500 million to move forward. Given the larger number of satellites already built, according to FCC filings and comments by Shotwell, SpaceX has built a production line or factory for its own satellites.
Also unknown is how far along SpaceX is in building a $200 to $300 ground terminal and if it will have the capability to produce its own user equipment in large quantities, as well as how Starlink will be marketed and sold. Can the “Tesla” model work for satellite services or will SpaceX have to build a set of distributors for installation of equipment?