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

  SpaceX Falcon 9 fairing Starlink
Each set of 60 Starlink satellites will provide a terabit of useful broadband capabilities, according to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. Credit: SpaceX


1; SpaceX shared details of its basically secretive Starlink constellation program on March 15, providing updated commercial service goals, satellite design details, and the tank process behind why the company's top target is 12,000 satellites – about six times numbers that work in circulation for the rest of the world combined.

SpaceX's first launch with a large number of Starlink satellites is run 24 hours, with a new launch window opening at 10.30 am Eastern May 16. The Falcon 9 mission will carry 60 Starlink satellites.

Although the spacecraft lacks inter-satellite links and other functions expected in later iterations, space secretary Elon Musk said in the satellite that the satellites mark the start of deployment for a constellation designed to deliver internet access to unreacted and underwater parts of world.

Musk, in a conversation with reporters, said that SpaceX sees 1000 satellites as the point when Starlink becomes financially solid.

"In order for the system to be economically feasible, it really is in the order of 1000 satellites," he said. "If we put much more satellites in circulation, it's very good – that means there's a lot of demand for the system."

SpaceX requested and received US market access for a constellation number nearly 12,000 satellites. Until recently, regulatory applications with U.S. Pat. The Federal Communications Commission has been the main road information on SpaceX's constellation being made publicly available.

Musk said reaching 12,000 satellites would indicate a very successful Starlink result.

SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell said on May 7, that the company is planning three to seven Starlink launches this year.

Musk said subsequent Starlink launches would each carry about 60 satellites. Forward, Musk said SpaceX can launch 1000 to 2000 satellites a year with their Falcon rocket family.

"There are a lot of many launches. We will hopefully have Starship active when we are somewhere near 12,000 satellites," he says, referring to the next generation's fully reusable launch system, SpaceX is developing.

2100 operating satellites in circulation today from worldwide satellite operators, according to a report by Bryce Space and Technology issued May 8.

Musk said Starlink will have continuous coverage of limited geographies at about 400 satellites, or seven launches including tomorrow's missions. Mark Juncosa, SpaceX's vice president of the automotive industry, said 12 Starlink launches would guarantee US coverage, and after 24 launches, Starlink would cover most of the world's population, and 30 launches would be sufficient to cover the planet, Juncosa said. ]

With each launch, SpaceX will add a terabit of "used bar capacity, "says Musk and two to three terabits in total.

Satellite operators sometimes set a difference between usable capacity and aggregate capacity when discussing earth block constellations, since the constellations are generally designed for global coverage but are unlikely to have customers in all locations where rays are active

SpaceX's projection for Starlink, its usable capacity puts higher than any geostational communication satellite in circulation today and would significantly exceed any other publicly known terrestrial constellation in development. Telesat, which plans a constellation of 300 satellites, estimates that it will provide 8 terabits of "useful capacity". The satellites in OneWeb's first generation constellation of 600 operating satellites and 50 spare parts are designed to carry 10 gigabits per second, which means the system should probably offer 6 terabits per second of aggregate capacity (OneWeb did not respond to May 14 to confirm that number).

Updated Starlink designs

SpaceX launched two prototype Starlink satellites in February 2018. These new satellites will be significantly different, Musk says.

Musk said Starlink's latest 60 satellites carry chamfered array antennas and ion propulsion units that run on krypton instead of the typical xenon gas. SpaceX chose krypton because it is cheaper than xenon, said Musk.

SpaceX's first generation satellites will not have intersatellite links, but will be able to use ground stations as relays to "ground bounce" signals around the world, he said. Later generations would include intersatellite links and other upgrades, he said, but he did not provide a timeframe for when to be introduced.

Musk said SpaceX would like to keep Starlink satellites in circulation for four to five years before deorbiting and replacing them with newer, more capable models.

Antennas and Customers

Musk said Starlink user terminals also use phase-based rows, electronically-controlled antennas – a technology that is generally considered necessary for the success of low-bandwidth broadband constellations.

Unlike traditional bowl antennas, electronically controlled systems can track two or more satellites simultaneously, which means no loss in connection with the satellites rising and being set over the horizon.

Musk said Starlink terminals, utilizing the work of SpaceX's "chip team", can switch between satellites in less than a thousand seconds and support a system where the total latency is less than 20 milliseconds.

Musk described the terminals as resembling the size of a small or medium-sized pizza. While Musk mainly talked about Starlink as a system to bridge the digital divide by joining unreacted people, Musk said the antennas could also serve the more lucrative aviation and shipping markets that most satellite operators are driving. The antennas can also be used to connect cars, he said.

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

Musk said SpaceX hasn't tried to win customers for Starlink yet, and thought it would be better to understand first the constellation installation scheme first. SpaceX is likely to start selling connections later this year or early next year if everything goes well, he said.

Musk said SpaceX is interested in signing telecoms as customers, as well as governments who want to join hard to reach parts of their countries.

SpaceX plans to use Starlink to generate more funding in support of its goal of establishing a colony on Mars, Musk says. Starlink revenue would also help fund a base on the moon, he said.

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