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Musk says Starlink "economically viable" with about 1,000 satellites

SpaceX Falcon 9 Starlink fairing
Each batch of 60 Starlink satellites will bring a terabit of usable broadband capacity, according to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON – SpaceX unveiled details of its largely confidential Starlink constellation program on March 15, providing up-to-date targets for the commercial service, detailed information on satellite design, and the thought process explaining why the satellite is not running. The company's top goal is 12,000 satellites, about six times the number of satellites remaining in the combined world.

The first launch of SpaceX with a large number of Starlink satellites was postponed for 24 hours, with a new launch window open at 22:30. East of May 16th. The Falcon 9 mission will carry 60 Starlink satellites.

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, said the satellites marked the beginning of the deployment of a constellation designed to provide Internet access to untapped and under-served parts of the world.

Musk, in a phone conversation with reporters, said SpaceX believed that 1,000 satellites were the time when Starlink would become economically sound.

"In order for the system to be economically viable, it actually takes about 1,000 satellites," he said. "If we put a lot more satellites than this one into orbit, that's a very good thing, which means the system is very busy."

SpaceX has applied for and obtained access to the US market for a constellation of nearly 12,000 satellites. Until recently, regulatory filings with the US Federal Communications Commission were the primary means of making information about the SpaceX constellation public.

Musk said that reaching 12,000 satellites would indicate a "very positive result" for Starlink.

SpaceX president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, said on May 7 that the company was planning three to seven Starlink launches this year.

Musk said the subsequent launches of Starlink would each carry about 60 satellites. Musk told SpaceX in the future could launch 1,000 to 2,000 satellites a year with its family of Falcon rockets.

"It's a lot of launches. We hope that Starship will be active by the time we are close to 12,000 satellites, "he said, referring to the fully reusable launch system that SpaceX is currently developing.

According to a report by Bryce Space and Technology published on May 8, about 2,100 operational satellites in orbit are currently in orbit and come from all the satellite operators in the world.

Musk said Starlink would permanently cover limited geographic areas, about 400 satellites, or seven launches, including tomorrow's mission. Mark Juncosa, Vice President of Vehicle Engineering at SpaceX, said 12 Starlink launches would provide coverage for the United States. After 24 launches, Starlink would cover most of the world's population and 30 launches would be enough to cover the planet, said Juncosa.

At each launch, SpaceX will add about a terabit of "usable capacity," said Musk, as well as a total of two to three terabytes.

Satellite operators sometimes differentiate between usable capacity and overall capacity when discussing constellations in low Earth orbit, as constellations are generally designed for global coverage, but customers are unlikely to be present at each location. where the beams are active.

The SpaceX projection for Starlink places its usable capacity above any geostationary telecommunication satellite in orbit, and significantly outperforms any other constellation in low Earth orbit known and under development. Telesat, which plans a constellation of 300 satellites, estimates that it will provide a useful capacity of 8 terabits. OneWeb's first-generation constellation satellites, consisting of 600 operational satellites and 50 spare parts, are designed to carry 10 gigabits per second each. The system is likely to offer 6 terabits per second of overall capacity (OneWeb did not respond to a May 14 request to confirm this figure).

Starlink drawings updated

SpaceX launched two prototypes of Starlink satellites in February 2018. These new satellites will be very different, said Musk.

According to Musk, Starlink's 60 most recent satellites are equipped with krypton ion-based network antennas and ion propulsion devices instead of typical xenon gas. SpaceX chose krypton because it costs less than xenon, said Musk.

SpaceX's first-generation satellites will not have inter-satellite links, but will be able to use ground stations as a relay to "emit ground signals," he said. Future generations will include inter-satellite links and other upgrades, he said, although he did not specify a timetable for their introduction.

Musk said SpaceX wanted to keep the Starlink satellites in orbit for four to five years before desorbing them and replacing them with newer, more efficient models.

Antennas and clients

According to Mr. Musk, Starlink's user terminals will also use phased electronically controlled antennas, a technology widely considered essential to the success of low-Earth orbit broadband constellations.

Unlike traditional satellite dishes, electronically controlled systems can track two or more satellites simultaneously, preventing loss of connection when satellites rise and position themselves on the horizon.

According to Musk, Starlink terminals, leveraging the work of SpaceX's "computer chip", can switch from one satellite to another in less than a thousandth of a second and support a system with global latency is less than 20 milliseconds.

Musk described the terminals as being similar in size to a small or medium pizza. Although Musk spoke primarily about Starlink as a system to bridge the digital divide by connecting unreached people, Musk said the antennas could also serve the more lucrative aviation and shipping markets that most satellite operators. Antennas could also be used to connect cars, he said.

Musk did not say how much the antennas would cost or when they would be available. Most electronically controlled antennas are too expensive for consumers and businesses to use.

Musk said that SpaceX had not yet tried to gain customers for Starlink, saying it would be better to have a good understanding of the deployment schedule of its constellation. SpaceX will probably start selling connectivity later this year or early next year if all goes well, he said.

Musk said SpaceX wanted to sign telecom operators as customers, as well as governments wishing to connect in a difficult way to reach parts of their countries.

SpaceX plans to use Starlink to generate more funds to support its goal of establishing a colony on Mars, Musk said. Starlink's revenues would also help finance a base on the moon, he said.

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