A stack of Starlink internet satellites about to take off.
According to analysts, SpaceX is manufacturing its Starlink satellites at an unprecedented price for the space industry as the company is deeply involved in building a space-based global Internet service.
Elon Musk’s company announced in a presentation to the Federal Communications Commission last month that its Starlink unit “is currently building 1
“To date, hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in Starlink,” added the SpaceX presentation.
A slide from SpaceX’s July 2020 presentation to the FCC.
Starlink is SpaceX’s ambitious plan to build an interconnected network of approximately 12,000 small satellites to carry high-speed Internet from orbit around the world. The company has launched nearly 600 Starlink satellites to date and is currently building a system of ground stations and user terminals to connect consumers directly to its network.
Given the varying sizes and complexities of spacecraft being built by other companies, it is difficult to understand what SpaceX’s satellite production rate means. Chris Quilty, founder of Quilty Analytics, told CNBC that Starlink is being manufactured at a speed never seen before in the satellite sector. Quilty’s boutique research and investment firm focuses on the satellite communications sector, which he founded after leading Raymond James’ coverage of the space industry for 20 years.
“To put it in perspective, Iridium, which previously held the record for the largest commercial satellite constellation, was manufacturing satellites at the rate of about six satellites a month at its peak,” Quilty said.
At around 670 kilograms, Iridium’s NEXT satellites are almost three times the size of a Starlink satellite, compared to an estimated 260 kilograms. But despite the limitation that each Starlink is smaller than an Iridium satellite, SpaceX is building its spaceship 20 times as fast.
In particular, Quilty pointed out that Iridium’s satellites were built by the European aerospace conglomerate Thales Alenia Space. In addition, competing satellite internet startup OneWeb was building satellites at the rate of around 30 per month before going bankrupt – and Quilty pointed out that the OneWeb production line was designed and built in partnership with Airbus, another European aerospace giant was built. This makes Starlink the only one of the three satellites that was built exclusively by a US company and the most productive.
“American ingenuity is winning again,” Quilty said.
On the customer side, SpaceX announced to the FCC last week that there is already “exceptional demand” from people interested in Starlink’s Internet service. The company said “nearly 700,000 people” in the US were interested in the service and prompted SpaceX to request the FCC to increase the number of authorized user terminals from 1 million to 5 million.
Right now, the primary bottleneck to Starlink’s service appears to be how quickly SpaceX can launch the satellites, according to industry analyst Bryce Space and Technology. The company launched Starlink missions about once a month with its Falcon 9 missile fleet.
“With 60 satellites per Falcon 9, SpaceX is also committed to getting its Starship launcher online as quickly as possible as the company says it can broadcast 400 Starlink satellites at a time,” said Phil Smith, senior space analyst at Bryce CNBC .
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida, with 60 Starlink satellites on November 11, 2019 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The Starlink constellation will eventually consist of thousands of satellites designed for high-speed global Internet service.
Paul Hennessy | NurPhoto | Getty Images
Subscribe to CNBC PRO for exclusive insights and analyzes as well as live business day programs from around the world.