For the last two years, SpaceX has dominated news regarding space launches and rocket travel. This not only includes rocket explosions shortly after take-off but also successful two-person crew missions to the International Space Station. (Read more about the “stellar” accomplishments of SpaceX in this Bold story.) While these stories are certainly newsworthy, a more recent one is attention-grabbing as well. This one has to do with its low-earth orbit constellation of SpaceX satellites known as Starlink. In a relatively short-time, SpaceX has placed more than 1,500 of these in orbit. As a result, the company has already released beta-testing access to its broadband Internet services.
Despite being well proven as a broadband network, many are quickly signing up for Elon Musk’s latest endeavor. Much of the appeal is the potential such a system might bring to Internet users in terms of speed and latency. But it reflects an even deeper sense of trust in a company that has taken a unique approach to space projects and programs. Despite setbacks and naysayers, SpaceX has shown time and again that’s its long-range goals are both feasible and realistic. This is why many are eager to support SpaceX satellites and the Starlink constellation.
“To date, over half a million people have placed an order or put down a deposit for Starlink.” – Siva Bharadvaj, SpaceX Operations Engineer
The Rationale Behind Starlink
The overarching goal of Starlink is to create a network capable of providing high-speed Internet globally. In order to achieve, this Elon Musk and others support a low-earth orbital network that can better accommodate communications’ needs. Rather than having high-orbiting satellites, SpaceX satellites in lower-orbits can enhance speed and reduce latency of responses. Plus, the Starlink network can offer expanded connectivity to rural and remote regions of the globe. This rationale is what supports Musk’s current efforts.
While the Starlink constellation of SpaceX satellites offer enhanced Internet access and performance, other benefits also exist. Such a network can also create a more robust communications system that would support 5G activity. This type of network will be essential for expanding use of artificial intelligence, data analytics and the Internet-of-Things. As more and more smart devices and objects flood the market, satellite constellations like Starlink will be needed. This too is driving companies like SpaceX to expedite space launches and satellite placement in the near-term.
“The only limitation is high density of users in urban areas. Most likely, all of the initial 500k will receive service. More of a challenge when we get into the several million-user range.” – Elon Musk, Founder and CEO of SpaceX
The Growing Launches of SpaceX Satellites
SpaceX has been rather prolific as of late in placing more low-orbit earth satellites in its Starlink network. Ultimately, the plan is to have thousands of these satellites in place in order to achieve long-term goals. SpaceX already has 1,500 in place with many more launches planned this year. The last launch, which was this past month, involved a Falcon 9 rocket that carried 60 additional SpaceX satellites. Since May of 2019, this represented the 26th such launch for this purpose. Given the paucity of space missions in the past half-century, this level of activity is quite profound.
One of the most notable strategies Musk is using to achieve this accelerated timetable related to rocket reusability. The current rocket booster has been involved in the last 9 flights with successful capture and return. It is not scheduled to perform a 10th launch in the near future. If it is successful, it will break the record set by the previous Falcon 9 rocket booster. Between these two boosters alone, they have placed almost half of all SpaceX satellites. This is highly critical to Starlink network’s success, since this significantly reduces placement costs. By developing rocket components that can be reused, Musk introduced key innovation into the industry. It has now become the standard by which the competition will be measured.
“I don’t think we’re going to do tiered pricing to consumers. We’re going to try to keep it as simple as possible and transparent as possible, so right now there are no plans to tier for consumers.” – Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX
How Starlink Might Be SpaceX’s Cash Cow
For Elon Musk, many of his more recent endeavors have required ongoing capital and support. Tesla seems to have turned the corner, with new models receiving increasing consumer demand. SpaceX has recently received a boost from approvals by NASA for future rocket launches. But of all these endeavors, Starlink may offer the quickest path to profitability for Musk. SpaceX offered users the option to sign up for beta-testing in February of this. Since that time, half a million have done so. That’s pretty impressive given the short amount of time and the other options many consumers have for Internet connectivity.
The cost of this satellite network for beta-users is roughly $99 a month and an upfront charge of $499 for the user terminal. SpaceX states that it is not planning on tiered pricing, and instead, hopes to keep things simple. It also expected these fees to fall over time. Estimates suggest that the company could generate $30 billion a year from these services once SpaceX satellites are all in place. That’s a nice infusion of capital that the company could certainly use to advance a number of ongoing projects. This includes Musk’s ultimate goal of establishing colonies for humankind on Mars.
SpaceX Far Ahead of the Competition
Notably, there is competition when it comes to the placement of low-orbit satellites and Internet constellations. But SpaceX is ahead of others by far. Amazon hopes to soon launch its Kuiper satellites, but a current date has not yet been set. The FCC requires that Amazon have a minimum of 1,600 satellites in place by 2026 to comply with their current approval. Likewise, other countries like the UK are investing in these systems as well. But clearly the Starlink system and SpaceX satellites are well out in front. This may prove to be important as being first to market often has its advantages. And with SpaceX’s aggressive plans, catching up from behind may prove to be challenging if not impossible.
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