Over the weekend, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted more details about the upcoming Starlink test launch scheduled for May 15. Musk posted a picture of a densely packed mechanism being enclosed into a Falcon 9 fairing, saying the company will attempt to put 60 test satellites into orbit with the launch.
Through a series of Tweets, Musk described the satellites as “production design” and went to damp down expectations by saying “Much will likely go wrong on 1st mission.” Six “more” launches of 60 satellites are needed for “minor” coverage with 12 launches necessary for “moderate,” with Musk saying more details would be provided on the day of the launch, May 15 currently.
No information has been given as to the dimensions or mass of individual satellites, with SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell saying the satellites would have fully functional antennas and thrusters for attitude control, but not the necessary optical laser inter-satellite crosslinks necessary for a fully functional global broadband data network. In such a configuration, utility would be limited, with users only able to communicate in the time a single satellite is overhead and visible to both parties.
SpaceX’s Starlink May 15 launch is relatively unique. Several launches have put 60 or more than 60 satellites into orbit at once, but all missions to date have been mixture of cubesats and smaller satellites with a mixture of commercial and research spacecraft. The Iridium NEXT constellation refresh launched by SpaceX put 10 satellites into orbit at a time with multiple Falcon 9 launches while OneWeb plans to put anywhere from 30 to 36 satellites into orbit at a time using Soyuz launchers.
Being able to cleanly and precisely deploy all 60 satellites without mishap is likely to be the greatest challenge, followed by setting up, controlling and maneuvering the batch of satellites from their deployment orbits into their final service orbits. Having one or more satellites “stuck” in the dispenser would leave a gap in service coverage that would have to be filled on a subsequent flight by SpaceX or tapping a small launch provider to deliver a few satellites into the appropriate slots.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has authorized SpaceX to launch and operate up to 1,600 satellites in its first-generation deployment, with satellites deployed in 24 orbital planes at 66 satellites per plane. If each launch is designed to fill a single plane – a desirable feature, since it simplifies deployment – the test launch will be short six satellites per the FCC license, but SpaceX has been constantly tinkering with altitude, planes, and number of satellites since filing the initial Starlink paperwork.
Also under wraps is how SpaceX will market and sell the service. The company has sought a blanket FCC license to operate up to one million earth stations for end-users, with service provided through a flat-panel phased antenna about 1 meter wide. Will SpaceX use the “Tesla” model to control the supply chain, marketing directly to customers? Or will it partner with satellite resellers and distributors to ensure rapid installation of service at the cost of higher initial pricing?