Updated May 24, 2019 - Science

Everything you need to know about SpaceX's Starlink

Elon Musk

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk. Photo: David McNew/AFP/Getty Images

Elon Musk's SpaceX has big plans to beam high-speed internet to millions of people around the world.

The big picture: Called Starlink, the project is designed to use thousands of relatively low-cost satellites to provide broadband globally, even to remote areas without access to the internet today. But it will likely take dozens of launches to get the satellite constellation up and running, with many more over the years to keep them functioning — and even then it could contribute to a larger space junk problem.

Driving the news: SpaceX launched the first 60 Starlink satellites from Cape Canaveral, Florida on one of its Falcon 9 rockets on Thursday night. The rocket launched at 10:30 ET and the first booster returned for a smooth landing on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean about 10 minutes after launch, after sending the satellites to orbit.

The backdrop: In November 2018, SpaceX won permission from the FCC to launch 7,000 Starlink satellites into space with the eventual goal of building a network of 12,000 satellites that surround Earth and provide internet access.

  • Musk has said the goal of Starlink is to provide a revenue stream to help fund an eventual city on Mars, per Space News.
  • The first two Starlink "demonstration satellites” were launched into space on Feb. 22, 2018, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, along with the PAZ satellite on one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets.
    • Those first two satellites were essentially a proof-of-concept test. Nicknamed Tintin-A and Tintin-B, the two satellites were pathfinders, but Musk said the 60 being launched now are "production-design" satellites.
  • Reuters reported in October 2018 that Musk fired at least 7 people on Starlink's senior management team due to "disagreements over the pace at which the team was developing and testing its Starlink satellites."
    • The report highlighted the sense of urgency with which Musk approaches the project as SpaceX races to become the first private company to create this constellation.
  • Musk tweeted a photo of the 60 satellites loaded in the Falcon rocket. He tweeted that "much will likely go wrong" on this first mission and that 6 more launches of 60 satellites are needed for "minor coverage" and 12 for “moderate.”

The other side: A number of private companies — including OneWeb, Telesat and Leosat — have also had satellites approved. Amazon's Project Kuiper is also planning to launch thousands of satellites to orbit in the name of providing global broadband.

Yes, but: These sorts of satellite constellations are huge and SpaceX will need to coordinate its constellations and avoid other satellites and space junk that could threaten the network. The company will also need to avoid adding to the space junk problem.

  • It's also unclear at what price point a satellite-based internet service will be competitive with something like 5G — and whether it will be successful business-wise at all.

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