SpaceX Starlink January 6 launch (Source: SpaceX)

SpaceX successfully launches 3rd batch of Starlink broadband satellites

[Space IT Bridge was at CES 2020 last week. We apologize for the delay in reporting this story]

Last week, SpaceX successfully launched its third batch of Starlink satellites into orbit, adding 60 more to its constellation.  “At least 4 more launches” will be necessary to start providing initial services to Canada and the Northern U.S., according to a tweet by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

The Falcon 9 launch took place on Monday, January 6, at 9:19 PM from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, also marking the company’s first launch of 2020.  It was the fourth flight for the Falcon 9 first stage, having been previously used for missions to launch the first Starlink batch of satellites in May 2019 along with putting a set of Iridium satellites into orbit one year ago and a Telstar satellite into orbit in September 2019.  The first stage successfully landed downrange onboard a SpaceX drone ship and should be good for at least another 6 flights.

One of the 60 satellites in the latest batch has been modified to be “darkened,” cutting down on reflective surfaces as an experiment to reduce its visibility and interference with ground astronomy.  The astronomy community has been concerned that large numbers of Starlink satellites will cause increasing problems for observations, with bright satellites obscuring the sky.

SpaceX currently has around 180 Starlink satellites in orbit, but it isn’t clear if all of them are going to be used in production service, with the first 60 “0.9” group only able to support Ku-band while more recent satellites include both Ku and Ka-band radios. 

Public statements by SpaceX officials say it will take a total of 6 to 8 launches to provide service to Canada and the Northern US – initially the estimate was 4 to 6 launches – with a total of 24 launches necessary to provide global coverage.  Musk said it will take “at least 4 more launches” to get to Canada/North US coverage.

Musk has also disclosed more details on the evolution of the Starlink user terminals. Instead of a flat pizza box, it “looks like a thin, flat, round UFO on a stick” with motors to self-adjust the antenna for an optimum angle of the sky and the closest satellite orbit.  “Instructions are simply: – Plug in socket – Point at sky These instructions work in either order. No training required,” Musk tweeted. It is likely a mock up of the Starlink user terminal will be shown at the Satellite 2020 show in Washington DC in March.  Musk is listed as a keynote speaker and is expected to provide an update on Starlink and SpaceX launch activities.

SpaceX officials have said they plan to conduct Starlink launches twice a month through the end of 2020 and beyond, but they have also said such predications are optimistic. Historically, SpaceX has rarely met its launch plans and Starlink is no exception. After the first Starlink launch in May 2019, Musk and others said SpaceX would conduct anywhere from 4 to 6 launches by the end of the year; only one more Starlink launch took place.  

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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