It has been a quiet fall for SpaceX, which launched a Falcon 9 rocket early August before taking a break to prepare for future missions. Now, SpaceX has successfully deployed a new batch of Starlink internet satellites, and the Falcon 9 that delivered them made history in the process. At this rate, SpaceX could begin offering internet access by the middle of 2020. Although, not everyone is happy about the growth of the Starlink constellation — astronomers worry Starlink could interfere with ground-based observations and other satellites.
SpaceX sent the first batch of Starlink satellites into space earlier this year as a test. Some of the devices failed to operate, but SpaceX has since refined the software. CEO Elon Musk was able to send a tweet via the Starlink network recently, but the system needs at least a few hundred satellites for what SpaceX calls “moderate” coverage. The latest launch of 60 satellites gets SpaceX on the way there.
Successful deployment of 60 Starlink satellites confirmed! pic.twitter.com/bpBqO9oYR3
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) November 11, 2019
Unlike other satellite internet systems, Starlink aims to provide very low latency connections. Many of the satellites will remain in very-low Earth orbit (VLEO) to improve connectivity. SpaceX has promised latency as low as 15ms, which would be very impressive if true.
Initially, SpaceX only planned to launch a few thousand satellites to power Starlink, but that number has since ballooned to at least 30,000. The company hopes to have 2,000 in orbit by the end of the year. Astronomers worry that the high reflectivity of thousands of satellites will throw off observations of distant objects. Musk says the team is looking at ways to reduce the albedo (or reflectivity) of the satellites in future launches. With thousands of satellites in the constellation, there is also concern they could collide with other satellites.
Falcon 9 first stage has landed on the Of Course I Still Love You droneship – the fourth launch and landing of this booster pic.twitter.com/qQvH7pwMDO
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) November 11, 2019
The Falcon 9 that delivered the second batch of Starlink satellites to space also set a record for reusability. This was the booster’s fourth launch, having landed after three previous missions. While SpaceX managed to land the rocket a fourth time, it’s unclear if it will get another mission. This was also the first mission to use refurbished fairings — those are the aerodynamic shells that cover the payload on the second stage. SpaceX just started collecting those for reuse recently.
SpaceX isn’t the only company planning a large satellite constellation, but its unparalleled rocket reusability should help it realize the strategy on the cheap.
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