SpaceX CRS-17 launch (Source: SpaceX)

SpaceX Starlink launch targeted for November 11 – will questions be answered?

After a successful Falcon 9 first stage test on November 5, SpaceX said via tweet it plans to launch the next 60 Starlink communications satellite into orbit on November 11. The launch will include the first reuse of a fairing recovered from a previous launch and first time a Falcon 9 first stage flies for the fourth time. Questions remain as to how many Starlink launches will take place through the end of the year, where and how the Starlink satellites will be distributed, and what the latest hardware configuration will be for the first group of production satellites.

In May, SpaceX launched a group of 60 Starlink satellites into a single orbital plane. The first satellite group has been described as version 0.9 hardware, lacking Ka-band radios and optical cross-links. SpaceX has since filed a request with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to deploy 20 satellites per orbital plane to more rapidly enable coverage of the United States and the rest of the world. Satellites onboard the November 11 launch should also have Ka-band radios included, but optical crosslinks are not expected to show up until later in 2020.

How 60 satellites onboard a single launch will be distributed among three orbital remains to be demonstrated. The May launch essentially spun a stack of 60 Starlink satellites into a single plane, with the satellites slowly separating and spreading out. Presumably SpaceX would have to either “drift” groups of satellites into different planes or distribute a group of 20 satellites into one plane, relight the second stage, then move to other planes to drop off the two other groups. Since the May launch stacked 60 satellites into one unit without using a central bus or other distribution hardware, SpaceX would have to have to have a different technique and/or technology to drop satellites into three locations.

Production rates for Starlink satellites and how quickly they can be launched remain open questions. After the company’s successful May launch, SpaceX officials said they planned to conduct 4 to 6 Starlink launches by the end of 2019.   The November 11 launch will be the first with the second potentially taking place in December. SpaceX’s last launch was on August 6, 2019, with the company conducting a Falcon 9 launch on an average of once per month with a couple of launches within a 30 day period, so presumably they are waiting on satellite hardware to be built.

SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell says the company will conduct Starlink launches every two weeks throughout 2020 until the entire 1,500ish satellite constellation is in orbit, but she has also provided a prominent disclaimer about adhering to her statements about timelines in her recent appearances before investors and the public. It is likely SpaceX could launch Starlink every two weeks if it had no other launch commitments on the manifest.

Hopefully SpaceX will provide more information in a press conference prior to launch on November 11, including a timeline on when User Terminal equipment will start being piloted and produced in quantity. Starlink had numerous open positions in mid-October around building end-user equipment and a customer service organization to support anyone who buys the service.

Doug Mohney

Doug Mohney, a principal at Cidera Analytics, has been working and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years. His real world experience including stints at two start-ups, a commercial internet service provider that went public in 1997 for $150 million and a satellite internet broadband company. Follow him on Twitter at DougonTech or contact him at dmohney139 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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