SpaceX kick-starts space-based internet with Falcon 9 launch

By William Harwood

/ CBS News

SpaceX readied a previously-flown Falcon 9 rocket for launch Wednesday evening carrying 60 Starlink internet relay satellites. The satellites will help pave the way toward a planned constellation of nearly 12,000 needed to provide space-based internet connectivity around the world.

Stacked inside the rocket's 17-foot-wide nose fairing, the satellites were scheduled for launch from pad 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 10:30 p.m. EDT. SpaceX planned to attempt recovery of the rocket's twice-flown first stage with landing on an off-shore droneship.

The flight plan called for satellite deployment to begin about an hour after launch. The 60-satellite 30,000-pound payload is the heaviest launched to date by a Falcon 9 rocket.

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"This mission will push the operational capabilities of the satellites to the limit," the company said in its mission press kit. "SpaceX expects to encounter issues along the way, but our learnings here are key to developing an affordable and reliable broadband service in the future."

A Falcon 9 rocket featuring a twice-flown first stage stands poised for launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to boost 60 Starlink satellites into orbit, the first of nearly 12,000 planned by the California rocket builder to provide internet service around the world. SpaceX

SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk was more blunt in n earlier tweet, attempting to lower expectations somewhat by saying "much will likely go wrong" on the initial mission. He also cautioned that six launches of 60 satellites each would be needed for even "minor" internet coverage on a global scale.

The complete constellation, which reportedly will cost in the neighborhood of $10 billion, will be made up of nearly 12,000 Starlink satellites, up to 4,400 of them using Ku- and Ka-band radios with the rest using so-called V-band frequencies. The satellites will be deployed at three orbital altitudes — 210, 342 and 745 miles — in multiple planes to provide global high-throughput coverage.

To improve the flow of data through the system, the 500-pound satellites will be able to hand off internet connections to other Starlink spacecraft as needed without going through ground stations. The initial 60 satellites, however, do not feature such "cross-link" capability, which presumably will result in slower data throughput.

But fully operational follow-ons will "connect end users with low-latency, high-bandwidth broadband services by providing continual coverage around the world using a network of thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit," SpaceX said in its press kit.

"To manufacture and launch a constellation of such scale, SpaceX is using the same rapid iteration in design approach that led to the successes of Falcon 1, Falcon 9 (rocket), Falcon Heavy, and Dragon. As such, Starlink's simplified design is significantly more scalable and capable than its first experimental iteration."

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An image tweeted by SpaceX founder Elon Musk shows all 60 Starlink satellites stacked in the Falcon 9 nose fairing. SpaceX

Once the constellation is operational, low-cost terminals, or receivers, will allow customers to tap into the truly worldwide web.

SpaceX launched two Starlink demonstration satellites as secondary payloads on a Falcon 9 in 2018.

"This next batch of satellites will really be a demonstration set for us to see the deployment scheme and start pulling our network together," Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president and chief operating officer, said earlier this month. "We start launching satellites for actual services later this year."

She added that two to six more Starlink flights may be launched by the end of the year, "but it largely depends on how we do on this first batch."

SpaceX is one of several companies, including Amazon, OneWeb and others, that are planning space-based internet services using vast constellations of satellites. The sheer number of satellites potentially bound for low-Earth orbit has raised questions about traffic management, collision avoidance how they will be removed from orbit at the end of their planned lifetimes.

SpaceX says its spacecraft are equipped with sophisticated systems allowing them to autonomously track nearby spacecraft and avoid collisions using Hall-effect ion thrusters for maneuvering and to push them back into the atmosphere at end of their missions.

In addition, "95 percent of all components of this design will quickly burn in Earth's atmosphere at the end of each satellite's lifecycle — exceeding all current safety standards — with future iterative designs moving to complete disintegration."

Wednesday's planned flight marked the sixth SpaceX mission so far this year, its fifth from Florida. Next up on the Falcon 9 schedule is launch of the Radar Constellation Mission for the Canadian Space Agency. Liftoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., is targeted for June 11.

SpaceX plans to launch its third three-core Falcon Heavy rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida around June 22 to boost a group of military payloads and experiments into orbit.

First published on May 15, 2019 / 3:03 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

William Harwood

Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He covered 129 space shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia."

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