Spaceflight Insider

Lower orbit granted for first SpaceX Starlink satellites

The first two prototype Starlink satellites were launched by SpaceX in February 2018. Photo Credit: SpaceX

The first two prototype Starlink satellites were launched by SpaceX in February 2018. Photo Credit: SpaceX

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has granted SpaceX approval to launch its first group of Starlink communication satellites, which are designed to provide a system of low-cost, high-performing broadband internet access from space, in a lower orbit than initially planned.

Starlink is an ambitious project aimed at establishing a network of satellites capable of providing high-speed internet access worldwide. When complete, it is expected to encompass nearly 12,000 satellites costing an estimated total of $10 billion, all of which is planned to be designed, built and launched over the next decade.

The first batch of the small satellites—a total of 1,584, which are expected to begin launching as early as May 2019—has already arrived in Florida in preparation for launch. In the lead up to launch, the FCC has granted SpaceX’s request to lower the orbits of the first group of satellites from the original 715 miles (1,150 kilometers) above the Earth to 340 miles (550 kilometers).

A lower orbit would enable SpaceX to increase the number of satellites launched via its Falcon 9 rocket while decreasing the chances other satellites would be hit by any debris generated by any Starlink satellite that malfunctions.

At present, approximately 2,000 satellites orbit the Earth. According to the contract between SpaceX and the FCC, this number would triple in just the first phase of Starlink over the next six years.

Starlink’s second phase, which is expected to take place between 2024 and 2027, involves the launch of another 7,500 satellites to be placed in very-low-Earth orbit.

The license SpaceX received for this second phase requires the company to build and launch an average of 37 satellites per month by November 2024, a task that is expected to require major innovations in satellite design, construction, and operation.

Instead of using dual-band phased-array antennas, the first 75 Starlink satellites are expected to operate only in the Ka communications band.

While these 75 contain a few components capable of surviving re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, their successors are being designed to completely burn up on re-entry, assuring zero risk to people and property on Earth.

The first Starlink satellites are expected to be orbited as early as mid-May 2019. How many will be aboard this first flight is currently unknown, but the plan is to launch from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral air Force Station in Florida.




Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.

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