SpaceX Starlink March 11 launch (Source: SpaceX Flickr)

SpaceX Starlink March scorecard: 4 launches, 240 broadband satellites

This morning, March 24, 2021, SpaceX conducted its fourth Starlink launch in March, adding 60 more satellites to its satellite broadband constellation with over 1,300 currently in orbit (1,321 per Parabolic Arc’s calculations).   This would mean Starlink would need to two or three more launches to reach the 1,440 number it had requested under its initial FCC license and would presumably provide enough satellites to provide stable 24×7 broadband coverage around the world.

Today’s launch took place at 4:28 AM ET from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station from Space Launch Complex (SLC) 40. The Falcon 9 first stage successfully completed its sixth overall flight (launch and landing on a barge downrange); today’s mission also had two payload shroud halves that had flown on a previous mission. A total of seven Falcon 9 launches have put 420 Starlink satellites into orbit since the beginning of the year.

SpaceX had previously said it planned to launch Starlink satellites at least twice a month throughout 2021, but the company has been notoriously stingy about providing detailed information or a roadmap of its Starlink plans.  At some point in the future, the company will switch from v1.0 satellites to v1.5 or 2.0 satellite design, adding optical (laser) intersatellite links and other improvements for better network performance and reduced reliance on ground station relays.

Starlink’s increased launch cadence coincides with the company’s expansion of beta tests beyond North America to Europe, with Reddit postings of dishes arriving in the UK and Germany with users expected to be turning up in New Zealand in the near-term.  Additional countries are expected to be added to the Starlink service area around the globe, with operational licenses secured in Australia and several European countries so far, with additional regulatory work taking place in Europe, Mexico, Asia, Africa, and South America.

Over 10,000 users were enrolled in the Starlink beta by February 2021, according to a SpaceX FCC filing on February 3, 2021. The company has yet to release any numbers as to how many dishes/terminals are shipping per month or breakdowns of where dishes are shipping between North American and the rest of the world, or between U.S. users simply participating in the beta and users counting towards FCC RDOF subsidy commitments.

Dish demand should increase significantly once the FCC approves a blanket request for mobile licensing of Starlink services. SpaceX is known to be testing unmodified Starlink equipment onboard its fleet of recovery vessels and in the air using company business jet aircraft. There are also unconfirmed reports of beta testing taking place onboard third-party ships and aircraft.

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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