Elon Musk reveals how to stuff 60 Starlink satellites on SpaceX’s Falcon rocket


We now know how many of SpaceX’s Starlink broadband data satellites, developed in Redmond, Wash., can be crammed into the nose cone of a Falcon rocket.

The answer to the ultimate question is 60.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk showed how five dozen satellites fit, just barely, inside a Falcon fairing today in a tweet:

The Starlink project is due to go through a milestone Falcon 9 launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station as early as next week. The demonstration mission will mark another step toward the deployment of thousands of satellites designed to provide low-cost global internet access.

These first satellites are equipped with antennas and networking equipment to communicate with ground stations in a variety of locations, including three in Washington state. But as SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell reported at this week’s Satellite 2019 conference, they won’t demonstrate the satellite-to-satellite links that knit the constellation together. That will have to wait for future deployments.

For what it’s worth, 60 satellites won’t set a record for a single rocket launch, or even a single Falcon 9 launch. Last December’s SmallSat Express launch, organized by Seattle-based Spaceflight, put 64 satellites on a Falcon 9.

In follow-up tweets, Musk added a few more details about the launch, the satellites and their role in the Starlink constellation:

The Tintin prototype satellites were launched in February 2018 and are still being tested in orbit — but since then, SpaceX’s Starlink unit in Redmond has gone through a radical round of reorganization and redesign. The production satellites are designed to operate in orbits as low as 340 miles (550 kilometers).

Twitter wags were quick to note that Musk’s minimum for “minor coverage” was 420 satellites, a number that figured in last year’s Tesla tussle and his marijuana misstep:

The master plan calls for an initial constellation of more than 4,400 satellites, followed by a second set of 7,500 satellites. All those satellites, plus up to a million ground terminals, are meant to serve as the foundation for an Internet access service that Musk hopes will generate the revenue for building a city on Mars.

But Musk isn’t alone in his ambitions to build a satellite broadband constellation in low Earth orbit. Starlink could be facing competition from many quarters, including OneWeb, Telesat, LeoSat Enterprises, Amazon’s Project Kuiper, Boeing and Facebook. Other rivals — such as Viasat, SES O3b, HAPSMobile and Loon — are getting into the broadband access market via routes other than low Earth orbit.

Will SpaceX be one of the survivors? Considering the fact that Musk is devoting hundreds of millions of dollars to the effort, it’s unlikely that Starlink will crash and burn. But at the same time, it’s by no means clear how high it will fly.

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