Elon Musk’s SpaceX company has completed a first launch of 60 satellites for its Starlink constellation, a major step forward for a programme that ultimately aims to provide broadband internet services across the planet using a network of thousands of low Earth orbit satellites.
The satellites were successfully launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida late on May 23rd, beginning deployment at an altitude of 440km before using onboard propulsion systems to reach an operational altitude of 550km.
For comparison, the geostationary satellites used to provide services like FleetBroadband by Inmarsat are positioned in an orbital plane almost 36,000km from the Earth.
All 60 satellites were confirmed as deployed and online by SpaceX within hours of the launch. The Starlink satellites feature a flat-panel design with multiple antennas and a single solar array. With each satellite weighing approximately 227kg, SpaceX says it is preparing to mass produce the spacecraft as it continues with the programme.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has previously said that the company could begin to offer partial services once it has deployed around 400 satellites, moving to having significant operational capability around the 800 satellite mark, before becoming “economically viable” after 1,000 satellites are in orbit.
This first batch of 60 satellites may not be among that operational number however, with the initial deployment being treated as a type of learning exercise by the company as it ramps up the Starlink programme.
Speaking at the Satellite 2019 conference in early May in Washington DC, SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell noted that the 60 spacecraft “will really be a demonstration set for us to see the deployment scheme and start putting our network together. We start launching satellites for actual service later this year.”
Ms Shotwell explained that these initial satellites feature a scaled down version of the planned design, lacking the crosslinks for satellite-to-satellite communication expected to be included in the operational constellation. As such, they will need to connect directly with gateways on the ground to send and receive signals.