Elon Musk’s SpaceX has made a business out of launching satellites for commercial customers, NASA and the U.S. military.
On Wednesday, the company will launch orbital objects of its own in a critical step toward creating a space-based constellation that beams broadband to underserved areas across the globe. It’s a bet Musk is making along with fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos on bringing in revenue as an internet provider from outer space. Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 intending to colonize Mars.
The first 60 operational satellites for SpaceX’s project, called Starlink, are slated to launch aboard one of the company’s Falcon 9 rockets at around 10:30 p.m. local time Wednesday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. SpaceX said in a tweet late Tuesday from its Hawthorne, California headquarters that “weather is 80% favorable” for a launch on schedule. After the launch and payload deployment, SpaceX will attempt to land the Falcon 9’s first stage on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
Roughly one hour and two minutes after liftoff, the Starlink satellites will begin deploying at an altitude of about 273 miles (440 kilometers) above Earth, SpaceX said in a press kit, then use onboard propulsion to reach an operational altitude of 550 km. Each satellite is equipped with a navigation system that allows SpaceX to precisely position the satellites, track orbiting debris and avoid collisions.
After sharing a teaser photo on Twitter of the satellites packed into the payload fairing of the rocket, Musk warned that “much will likely go wrong” on the first mission, and that six more launches of 60 satellites each will be needed to provide “minor” broadband coverage.
About 4 billion people — the vast majority of whom are in Africa and Southeast Asia — aren’t online and lack affordable, reliable access to the internet. Even in the U.S., a quarter of Americans in rural areas say access to high-speed internet is a significant problem, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2018.
“Starlink will afford broadband data access to the disconnected 4 billion much sooner than most would forecast,” Steve Jurvetson, a longtime SpaceX director, tweeted Sunday.
The Federal Communications Commission initially authorized SpaceX to launch and operate a constellation of 4,425 non-geostationary orbit satellites in March of last year, then approved an additional 7,518 in November.
SpaceX’s plan for roughly 12,000 satellites far exceeds the 1,957 satellites orbiting the Earth now, according to a tally by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Musk, SpaceX’s chief executive officer, first announced his satellite plans in 2015 when the company opened an engineering campus near Seattle. He said the system would cost $10 billion to $15 billion to create — maybe more — but that it would bring significant revenue to SpaceX once developed and ultimately help fund a city on Mars.
“Looking in the long term, and saying what’s needed to create a city on Mars? Well, one thing’s for sure: a lot of money,” Musk said. “We need things that will generate a lot of money.”
He’s far from alone in seeing dollar signs pushing a satellite-based internet service. Others with similar ambitions include Amazon.com Inc.’s Bezos, who runs rival rocket company Blue Origin LLC; Canada’s Telesat, and Virginia-based OneWeb, which has backing from SoftBank.
SpaceX launched a pair of Starlink demonstration satellites in February of last year. Four months later, Musk flew to Seattle to visit the team leading the project and fired at least seven people within hours, Reuters reported, citing two unidentified employees. The dismissals followed disagreements between Musk and others over the pace at which the satellites were being developed and tested, the news service said in October.
One of those ousted was Rajeev Badyal, who had joined SpaceX from Microsoft Corp. in 2014 and was vice president of satellites. Last month, CNBC reported that Badyal is now leading Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which plans to put more than 3,000 satellites in low Earth orbit.
When the MIT Technology Review reported on Amazon’s project last month, Musk tweeted that Bezos was a copycat.
“Each company has to launch a certain number of satellites to provide commercial services,” said Tom Stroup, president of the Satellite Industry Association in Washington. He noted there are already companies, including Iridium Communications Inc. and SES SA, that are currently providing broadband services from space.
“Getting hundreds, or thousands, of satellites into space and operational is no small feat,” he said.