The vision behind the Thursday rocket launch is that it could put the first of potentially thousands of satellites into low-earth orbit, where they would be able to beam high-speed Internet service.
(TNS) — Elon Musk calls it “one of the hardest engineering projects” he’s ever seen.
The vision: thousands of small satellites in low-Earth orbit that could provide lower-cost Internet connectivity across the globe, including areas where high-broadband Internet service is sparse or expensive.
And now, a part of it plans to head to space, beginning the process of testing what could be a multi-billion-dollar cash cow for Musk’s SpaceX. The first 60 satellites in what SpaceX is calling its Starlink constellation are packed inside the fairing of a Falcon 9 rocket that is scheduled to launch Thursday evening from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s launch complex 40.
The launch was moved from last week, when SpaceX said it was standing down to “update satellite software and triple-check everything again.” The weather going into Thursday’s 10:30 p.m. to midnight launch window is 90 percent “go” for launch, according to the Air Force’s 45th Weather Squadron.
At a combined 18.5 tons, the payload of dozens of 500-pound satellites will be SpaceX’s heaviest ever.
As the satellites are deployed in low-Earth orbit, SpaceX will analyze to what degree this initial entrance into the telecommunications industry will pay off for the rocket company.
“No one has ever succeeded in making a financially viable [low-Earth orbit] communication constellation right off the bat,” Musk said in a call with reporters last week, noting that Iridium and other companies, including Globalstar, ended in bankruptcy when they tried similar projects. “I do believe we will be successful, but it is far from a sure thing.”
The challenge, he explained, is the amount of new technology that has gone into developing the satellites. Their size and proximity to Earth makes them able to quickly transmit back and increase Internet connectivity speeds.
But to do that, there have to be thousands of satellites orbiting the Earth to provide sufficient coverage.
Musk said he envisions six more launches of about 60 satellites each this year to get good connectivity over the U.S., and 12 more launches to get moderate global connectivity. SpaceX has been approved by the Federal Communications Commission to operate nearly 12,000 satellites. But to get there, this first deployment has to prove successful.
The satellites will be deployed slowly, “like spreading a deck of cards” in space, Musk said, and the company should know about three to four hours after launch if they are functioning well.
“We feel pretty good about the satellites most likely working,” he said.
To mitigate concerns that thousands of satellites could collide in space, SpaceX is uploading the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s satellite tracking data to the spacecraft so they can autonomously avoid collision. About 95 percent of the satellites’ components will burn in the Earth’s atmosphere at the end of the satellites’ life cycles.
Once Starlink is up and running, users around the globe will be able to purchase a user portal — flat disks about the size of a small-to-medium pizza, Musk said — have them shipped to them and set them up without the need for specialized installation.
And they won’t need to be pointed in a precise angle, he said, like typical satellite dishes. As long as the dishes face the sky, they will be able to transmit high-speed Internet.
Musk said he believes the company has “sufficient capital to get to an operational level” with the Starlink constellation.
“But of course if things go wrong and there are unexpected issues we would need to operate more capital in that situation,” he said.
SpaceX does not have any customers for Starlink yet, but it plans to start seeking customers by the end of the year. The company believes it can use the revenue from Starlink to fund some of its other endeavors.
Of the trillion-dollar annual global revenue for Internet service providers, SpaceX thinks it can tap in to 3 to 5 percent, Musk said.
“We see this as a way for SpaceX to generate revenue that can be used to develop more and more advanced rockets and spaceships,” Musk said. “Starlink is a key stepping stone toward establishing a self-sustaining city on Mars and a base on the moon.”
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