This week SpaceX put its fourth set of Starlink broadband satellites into orbit. SpaceX now has around 240 Starlink satellites in orbit, the largest number of any operator in the world. If all goes as planned, SpaceX may be able to offer production broadband services to some areas of the world as early as the summer of this year.
The launch took place on January 29, at 9:06 a.m. ET from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. All satellites were successfully deployed at an altitude of 290 kilometers and are now going checkouts before being moved to an operational altitude of 550 kilometers. The Falcon 9 first stage successfully completed its third flight by landing on a drone ship downrange while SpaceX caught one of the two payload fairing halves and retrieved the other out of the ocean for future reuse.
SpaceX plans to conduct Starlink launches throughout 2020 at a pace of two launches per month with the goal to provide service to the Northern U.S. and Canada this year, with “near global coverage of the populated world” by 2021. At least four more launches are needed to put enough Starlink satellites into orbit for service to the Northern U.S. and Canada, according to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.
This flight marks the first time SpaceX has launched two Starlink missions in a month, with a launch at the beginning of the month – originally scheduled for late December – and the January 29 launch. At a rate of just one Starlink launch per month, SpaceX will have enough launches to start initial Northern U.S./Canada service by the summer while keeping to a pace of two Starlink launches per month through the rest of the year as planned would put most of the 1400ish satellites of the company’s initial constellation into orbit.
SpaceX’s rapid progress is likely to cause some consternation over at OneWeb, which is just prepping its first operational batch of 34 satellites for launch on February 6 from Balkonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. OneWeb had initially planned to launch its first set of satellites in December but took additional time to run engineering tests before shipping them out. If OneWeb keeps to a pace of a launch per month, it expects to start first customer tests by the end of 2020 and have all of its first phase constellation of 648 satellites up by 2021 to provide “full commercial global service.”
OneWeb’s advantages over SpaceX are access to off-the-shelf user terminal hardware – Starlink is in the process of building its own in-house for end-user applications, but the company also has some quiet relationships with defense contractors for integrating its service with U.S. military aircraft – and an growing network of resellers across verticals. SpaceX officials have said that initial users may have a rough time as the company builds its hardware and support services.