SpaceX launches first Starlink satellites for global broadband internet access by 2024
Earliertoday, SpaceX successfully launched and deployed its first two testsatellites for Starlink, the rocket company's own constellation of thousands of communications satellites that aims to provide worldwidebroadband internet access by 2024.
TheFalcon 9 rocket lifted off at 14:17 UTC from SpaceX's Vandenberg,California launch site, heading south over the Pacific Ocean toachieve a near-polar orbit. The first stage separated from the restof the rocket some three minutes later, but, in what is now anuncharacteristic move for SpaceX, no attempts were made to recoverit. (The reason? The booster was an outdated"Block 3" version, and the company is in the process of clearingits large stock of recovered first stages as it prepares to debut itsmore advanced, more reusable "Block 5" version in upcoming launches.)
Therocket's primary payload was Hisdesat's PAZ satellite, an advancedimaging satellite with up to 25 cm (10 in) resolution that willcover an area approximately the size of Italy every 24 hours.
Ofgreater interest, however, was the secondary payload: two smallertest satellites, baptized "TintinA & B," and forming the vanguard of what SpaceX hopes will beits very own constellation of high-speed internet communicationssatellites.
TheStarlinkproject was announced by SpaceX in January 2015, just as Google andFidelity investedUS$1 billion into Musk's private space company. It proposes to launcha very large number (as many as 12,000) of small communicationssatellites in low Earth orbit. These satellites would operate inconcert within the microwave band of the electromagnetic spectrum to provide low-latency,broadband internet anywhere in the world.
Low-altitudeorbits are a crucial part of the plan to achieve fast and responsivedata connections. Today's communications satellites have high latencybecause they are parked in geostationary orbit, 35,800 km (22,300 mi) above sealevel: at that distance, a light-speed signal takes a minimum of 0.23 seconds for a round trip. By operating in low Earth orbit, Musk's network would cut thatdistance by a factor of 30 to 100.
Accordingto FCC filings, SpaceX aims to launch a whopping 4,425satellites by 2024 in a 1,200 km (750 mi) orbit. After that, therocket company plans to add another seven thousand in a much lower340 km (210 mi) orbit, to provide latency comparable to that of fiberoptics. Because of the large number of satellites involved, SpaceXhas already had to provide assurances to the relevant authorities, hashing out details on how thesatellites will be deorbited at the end of their useful life so theywon't end up an unmanageable pile of space junk.
SpaceXis by no means the only company pursuing a global, low-latencycommunications network: Boeing,Facebook,Samsung,and OneWeb,among others, have also advanced similar plans for large swarms of low Earthorbit satellites. However, because of its unmatched reusable rockettechnology, Musk's company is likely the one with the best shot atdeploying its satellite network in a cheap and timely fashion.
Fairing recovery attempt just misses mark
Incidentally,today's launch also marked another important step in SpaceX's rocketreusability efforts, which could further cut its launch costs. As themission was still in progress, Musk tweetedthat the rocket's fairing – a costly piece of equipment (estimatedat US$6 million) that protects the payload from aerodynamic forces onascent and is jettisoned when the rocket reaches space – was ableto survive atmospheric reentry and was very nearly recovered by adedicated "catcher's mitt" boat.
Thiswas achieved thanks to a new iteration of the payload fairing, whichincludes small thrusters and parachutes to orient and direct theprecious piece of equipment toward the recovery boat. Unfortunately,the fairing splashed down a few hundred meters from its intendedtarget, but this partial success bodes well for future efforts. The firststage is estimated to make up 70 percent of the US$60 millionprice tag of a Falcon 9 rocket; recovering the fairing could help cut launch costs by another 10 percent.
Musksaid thetwo Starlink test satellites have deployed correctly and arecommunicating to Earth stations. The next attempt atfairing recovery will be in about a month.