SpaceX targeting May 15 to launch 60 Starlink satellites
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A week after confirming it was ready to launch “dozens” of Starlink satellites, SpaceX test fired the Falcon 9 it plans to use for the Starlink-1 mission.
SpaceX’s static fire test on the 229-foot (70-meter) rocket took place the night of May 13, 2019, with the payload fairing and 60 Starlink satellites already attached. This is in contrast to typical static fire tests where the payload fairing is integrated with the rocket afterword to avoid a repeat of the Amos 6 incident in September 2016.
However, this test went well and SpaceX set 10:30 p.m. EDT May 15 (02:30 GMT May 16) for the target launch time at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40.
This particular flight is expected to utilize both a previously flown first stage and, for the first time, a previously flown payload fairing.
The beginning of the first mega-constellation
Starlink is SpaceX’s attempt to establish a mega-constellation of 12,000 electrically propelled satellites to provide high-speed internet across the planet. At a cost of roughly $10 billion, it is expected to take about 10 years to complete.
For comparison, there are currently around 2,000 active satellites in orbit with another 3,000 or so defunct spacecraft, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
According to a Federal Communications Commission document, the first group of Starlink spacecraft—roughly 1,600 satellites—is planned to be placed in orbits at an altitude of about 340 miles (550 kilometers) inclined about 53 degrees from the equator.
Another 2,800 are planned to be placed in orbits some 710 miles (1,150 kilometers). These 4,400 satellites are expected to use Ku- and Ka-band communications.
Finally, some 7,500 satellites using V-band frequencies are expected to be placed in very low orbits of about 210 miles (340 kilometers).
Part of the reason for lowing the orbit of some of the satellites, in particular the first 1,600, is to alleviate debris concerns. Should one or more satellites have an issue, it won’t stay in orbit for more than several years.
However, another major reason for the low orbits is to ensure a high-speed, low-latency connection.
Altogether, SpaceX plans to have half the constellation in orbit by 2024 with it being completed by 2028.
In 2018, the company launched two prototype satellites into orbit: Tintin A and B. After several months, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the satellites had a low latency of 25 milliseconds, which he said was good enough to place fast-response video games.
Starlink-1 and beyond
According to statements made by SpaceX’s President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell during the Satellite 2019 conference in Washington, D.C., this first batch of 60 satellites will drive the schedule for the next set of spacecraft to be launched, depending on how they fair.
Overall, Shotwell said she expects anywhere between two and six Starlink-dedicated missions this year.
One thing these first production satellites lack, according to Shotwell at the Satellite 2019 conference, is an inter-satellite link capability. In the final version of the production satellites, it is expected the Starlink constellation will use laser communication to transfer internet connections around the planet without traveling through a ground station.
“These are production design, unlike our earlier Tintin demo sats,” Musk tweeted on May 11. “Much will likely go wrong on 1st mission. Also, 6 more launches of 60 sats needed for minor coverage, 12 for moderate.”
Musk said more details are expected to be revealed on the day of the launch. However, he did tweet a picture of the 60 Starlink satellites in a unique, tightly-packed configuration inside the 17.1-foot (5.2-meter) wide payload fairing.
The Falcon 9 first stage being used is core B1049. It is expected to be its third flight as it was previously employed for the Iridium-8 mission in January 2019 and Telstar 18V mission in September 2018.
As of April 2019, the payload fairing for the Starlink-1 mission was expected to be from the recent Falcon Heavy mission that same month, which SpaceX recovered from the Atlantic Ocean.
Should all go as planned, this flight will be the sixth SpaceX launch of 2019 and the fifth for a Falcon 9. It will also be the 70th Falcon 9 launch since 2010. Overall, the company expects 18-21 flights this year, not counting the Starlink missions.
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.