SpaceX successfully conducted its seventh Starlink launch, putting another 60 broadband satellites into orbit. The company has now put over 400 Starlink satellites into orbit, roughly halfway into having enough spacecraft operational to deliver service to Canada and parts of the United States.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off on April 22, 2020 at 3:30 p.m. EDT from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Falcon 9 first stage conducted its fourth launch and landing, successfully touching down onboard a drone ship downrange. Previous flights by the first stage included Crew Dragon’s first trip to the International Space Station, launch of the RADARSAT constellation mission, and the fourth Starlink mission. The Falcon 9 faring previously flew to put the AMOS-17 satellite into orbit.
All satellites are now undergoing checkout before being moved into intended orbit and operational altitude of 550 kilometers. SpaceX is still targeting service for Canada and the Northern U.S. in 2020 with “near global connectivity” by 2021, according to the company’s press release on the launch. The company is conducting a Starlink launch roughly once a month – it conducted two in January, but the first January launch was originally scheduled for late December.
SpaceX needs to deploy between 600 to 800 satellites to offer service to Canada and the Northern U.S., according to previous company statements, making a 2020 service date obtainable at a pace of one Starlink launch per month. But questions remain as to how many ground stations will be necessary to support global connectivity, including how signals will be relayed between satellites across the oceans.
Other questions remain as to the cost and availability of ground terminal equipment and SpaceX’s larger financial stability in today’s economic environment. Musk initially said the ground terminal would be a simple, “pizza box” sized device that could be pointed at the sky and would at some point cost around $250. More recently, the SpaceX founder described the User Terminal as a “UFO on a stick” with some mechanics involved to lock on and/or track satellites. An industry source implied SpaceX had shown some rough demonstration hardware of the UFO stick at the Satellite 2020 event in March.
With OneWeb’s bankruptcy filing and reorganization taking place along with the economic slowdown due to COVID-19, it is unclear what impact this will have on SpaceX’s current operations and access to additional capital. As a privately held company, SpaceX has little accounting transparency. The U.S. government, SpaceX’s largest customer, continues to conduct launches for national security and space exploration (i.e. NASA). Similarly, launches for other countries and commercial customers are likely to continue in the near-term, abet at a potentially slower rate due to global travel restrictions and pauses in on-site operations.