Low earth orbit (LEO) constellations continue to grow, with SpaceX conducting its first dedicated launch for Starlink polar-orbiting satellites while OneWeb added another stack of 34 satellites to its total.
The SpaceX Starlink mission took place on September 13, at 11:55 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force in California. Onboard were 51 Starlink satellites incorporating laser intersatellite links, a necessarily technology for providing service in remote regions and to reduce the number of ground stations worldwide. All satellite were successfully placed into orbit and have checked in with SpaceX.
SpaceX plans to conduct regular Starlink launches from Vandenberg into polar orbits to fill out the broadband constellation’s global coverage. Polar service is desired by the U.S. military and allied nations to support operations in the region, as well as by commercial airlines who cross over the North Pole in flights between Europe and North America. OneWeb is on track to launch polar service above the 50th parallel by the end of the year with its current constellation of satellites.
SpaceX has over 1500 operational Starlink satellites in orbit today and is licensed to put up to 12,000 satellite under its current FCC licenses. It has filed a request to add an additional 30,000 satellites into orbit.
The September 13 launch was the tenth successful flight (launch and landing) for the Falcon 9 first stage and the second time a first stage had flown ten times. Exactly how many times a Falcon 9 first stage can safely be reused is an open question. Initially, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said it would be capable of up to 10 flights with minimal refurbishment and up to 100 flights with intervals of more intensive care. COO Gwynne Shotwell later said the company would fly first stages 10 times since it would be cheaper to build a new one than refit one, followed by more recent comments by Elon Musk that later F9 first stages would be capable of more than 10 flights.
OneWeb successfully launched 34 satellites on September 14 at 2:07 p.m. EDT from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Successful communications was established with all 34 satellites.
The latest launch puts OneWeb’s total in-orbit constellation to 322 satellites, nearly half of the 648 satellites necessary to provide global coverage in the company’s first-generation constellation. OneWeb is steadily announcing its sales partners, announcing last week it will work with AT&T and Hughes Network Systems in the United States.