May 24, 2019 - Science

SpaceX launches 60 internet-beaming Starlink satellites to orbit

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch

Photo: SpaceX

SpaceX launched 60 of its internet-beaming Starlink satellites to orbit on Thursday night from Cape Canaveral, marking the first launch of its kind for the Elon Musk-founded company.

Why it matters: Starlink is SpaceX's big move into the satellite internet market. The company hopes to one day have a constellation of thousands of satellites in orbit, beaming broadband internet around the globe, particularly to areas without reliable coverage now. Musk thinks that revenue from Starlink has the potential to help fund the company's big plans for the future, including a possible city on Mars or base on the Moon.

Details: The Falcon 9 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station 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.

  • This was the booster's third trip to space, according to SpaceX, after launching one mission earlier this year and another in 2018.
  • That kind of reusability is key to SpaceX's business plan, which hinges on driving down the cost of launching payloads to space by reusing hardware multiple times.
  • It should take about 30 launches of 60 Starlink satellites each to get global coverage, according to SpaceX, with minor coverage possible with seven total launches.

The catch: Musk admits that it's possible that not all of the Starlink satellites launched in this batch will work.

  • While SpaceX did send two prototype satellites to space in 2018 to test some of the Starlink technology, this launch marks the first time the company has launched production satellites to orbit for the project.
  • “This was one of the hardest engineering projects I’ve ever seen done, and it’s been executed really well," Musk said during a press call ahead of the launch last week.

Context: SpaceX isn't the only company hoping to provide global broadband coverage using a mega-constellation of satellites. Companies like OneWeb and Amazon's Project Kuiper are planning to launch their own spacecraft to orbit in the coming years. This puts Musk in direct competition with Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, who owns the space company Blue Origin.

  • For his part, Musk welcomes the competition, saying he's a proponent of consumers having "the best possible range of prices."
  • Musk even went so far as to say that SpaceX would consider launching spacecraft for other satellite internet companies as well.

But, but, but: The business case for these mega-constellations still isn't a sure thing. Even if more than one constellation can survive in the marketplace, they will still face competition from each other and other terrestrial options — like 5G networks.

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