SpaceX will expand its familiar telecommunications ambitions on Monday with the launch of a Cape Canaveral Falcon 9 rocket. However, the company will also quietly cross a significant threshold and become the second largest satellite operator in the world – in addition to its already dominant position as a launch provider.
Launch at 9:55 am from Starter Complex 40 will take 60 minutes. Additional Starlink satellites will be brought into near-Earth orbit as part of the program to transfer Internet connectivity to ground the constellation is increased to 120 after its launch in May. So it will be superior to heavyweights like NASA, the Air Force and Iridium when it comes to the sheer number of spacecraft in orbit.
SpaceX plans to bring thousands of its own Starlink spacecraft into orbit – possibly up to 40,000 and more – then the constellation is constantly being updated as some are lost due to orbital decay. Despite the challenges and high costs involved in providing such a system, CEO Elon Musk sees it as a way to finance his company's future deep-space initiatives, such as the Starship vehicle and the Super Heavy Booster. He also hopes that the Internet connection for underserved regions of the world will be improved.
Start on Monday
Rendering of a SpaceX Starlink satellite in near-Earth orbit. Earth orbit. (Photo: SpaceX)
There are strong differences between Starlink spacecraft and vehicles operated by more established operators. For example, national safety satellites can weigh more than 12,000 pounds when refueling, operate thousands of miles above the ground, and require complex floor systems. Meanwhile, Starlink satellites only weigh 500 pounds and move a few hundred miles in height.
- Planet: Earth Observation Satellites  19659016] SpaceX: 120 Internet satellites (117 expected to lose contact with three in May, deorbit and burn))
- Iridium: 106 communications satellites
- Air Force: A mix of 98 classified satellites, communications satellites, earth observation, positional and Navigation Satellites and Satellites for Technology Development
- Spire: 85 Earth Observation Satellites
- NASA: 67 Science, Earth Science, Technology Development and Communications Satellites (including the International Space Station)
With just two more Starlink launches running until next year SpaceX Planet will darken to th e No. 1 by volume.
"They have set up and adhered to a very aggressive plan," said Rich Cooper, Vice President of Strategic Communications and Public Relations, Space Foundation. "The start on Monday will further accelerate the achievement of this timeline."
One of SpaceX's key benefits with Starlink, however, is not that the satellites are designed and built. The company also controls the ride to orbit through its family of reusable Falcon 9 rockets.
"Look, that's competition," Cooper said. "Diversifying your portfolio will make you a stronger and more resilient company. Providing the full range of services SpaceX has to offer – as a launch provider, integrator, and (satellite) operator – sets you apart from many competitors.
SpaceX launches 60 Starlink communications satellites on a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral on Thursday, May 23, 2019.
But it's not all about numbers – the expansion and overall message of the Starlink constellation is having a profound impact on the space, communications, and satellite industries. SpaceX is one of the few companies authorized by the Federal Communications Commission to operate in space.
"The launches themselves have less impact on the market than what they are doing and what they signal what they want to do," said James Dunstan, founder of the Mobius Legal Group, a law firm specializing in space and telecommunications law. "And that's a problem for everyone."
Several factors contribute to this nervous arousal, from approval by the FCC, with which Starlink takes lower altitudes, to the company's most recent plan, which quadruples the size of its original planned 11,000 to more than 40,000 satellites. The biggest concern, Dunstan said, is that some of the satellites will become orbital debris.
"The interesting thing is that the FCC is now going to be the real battlefield for surrounding debris," Dunstan said, noting that the agency has expertise but no expertise to make serious debris decisions. "Basic cross-generational policy decisions will result from an agency that is not really equipped or trained."
So far, SpaceX has said that low altitudes are actually an advantage for Starlink, and older people empower spaceships to burn cleanly in the atmosphere.
Paying For Future Efforts
Sixty of SpaceX's Starlink spacecraft are packed into the bow of a Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The company hopes to use thousands to bring the Internet connection to Earth from space. (Photo: SpaceX)
Capturing $ 5 billion a year in space would only secure 5% of the world's trillion-dollar telecommunications industry, Musk said. According to the 2018 report of the Satellite Industry Association, this is an order of magnitude of more than $ 4.6 billion for launch services.
"We see this as a way for SpaceX to generate revenue that will allow more advanced rockets to be developed and spacecraft," Musk said before the first flight in May. "We believe this is an important step on the road to building a self-sustaining city on Mars and a base on the moon." If it works as planned, similar constellations could be stationed in orbit around the Moon and Mars to connect the inhabitants of space with each other and with the Earth.
Milestones for SpaceX
Apart from the payload, the launch will take place on Monday represent two important milestones for SpaceX.
First, the company will be using a fully re-used fairing or fly the nose cone, which protects the spacecraft at take-off Hardware that can cost millions of dollars if it is simply thrown into the ocean after taking off. However, during a Falcon Heavy mission in April, two fairing halves were recovered and flying with Starlink. Being an internal mission helps SpaceX keep working and reducing costs.
Second, the Falcon 9's first flight marks the fourth flight of the SpaceX booster on Monday. So far, no Falcon booster has flown more than three missions before retiring, but these help the company achieve its goal of using it ten or more times.
About eight minutes after taking off, the 156-foot machine is scheduled to land a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean in the first leg. If it can be survived and maintained, it could one day fly a fifth time.
Contact Emre Kelly at [email protected] or 321-242-3715. Follow him on Twitter Facebook and Instagram @EmreKelly.
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