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SpaceX deploys 60 satellites to create an internet mega-constellation

Credit: Free-Photos / Pixabay

SpaceX, headed by Elon Musk, successfully completed the first stage in their ambitious Starlink project.  At 10.30pm on Thursday 23rd May 2019, SpaceX launched 60 satellites into orbit on a Falcon-9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida.  The private company hopes to use these satellites as the base for their mega orbiting broadband system called Starlink.  

How did the launch take place?

On Thursday 23rd May 2019, 60 satellites were launched into orbit from Cape Canaveral in Florida on one of SpaceX’s Falcon-9 rockets.  An hour after the launch the satellites were successfully in orbit.  In April 2019 SpaceX was granted permission from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to operate its satellites at a lower orbit than initially agreed (1500km). The target altitude for these satellites to operate is now 550km.

Each satellite is equipped with an electric propulsion. This system omits electrically charged krypton atoms to produce a thrust so as to take the satellites to their operational height of 550 km after being dropped off at an altitude of 440km. The system also ensures that the satellite can stay in the correct orbiting position as well as as to ensure recovery once it has reached the end of its life.

Each of the satellites weigh around 227 kilograms meaning that the collective weight comes to total of 13.6 metric tonnes.  This is by far the heaviest launch mission achieved by the innovative SpaceX company.

What is Starlink?

SpaceX is one of few commercial companies that have been given permission to operate there own internet mega-constellationStarlink, the company’s multi-billion orbiting broadband service aims to generate more income to fund SpaceX’s ambitious interplanetary missions.  Other companies with permission operate similar systems include the UK start-up OneWeb who started their roll out in February 2019.

SpaceX has kept most of the information about this future service under wraps. However these satellites aim to fly in low-orbits of less than 2000 km so as to minimize delays or gaps in internet connections globally.

When will the Starlink project be operational?

Last week the CEO of SpaceX Elon Musk spoke with reporters from SpaceNews regarding the ambitious Starlink project.  When discussing the number of future satellites for the project he sated:“For the system to be economically viable, it’s really on the order of 1,000 satellites.” He continued by saying, “If we are putting a lot more satellites than that in orbit, that’s a very good thing — it means there is a lot of demand for the system.”

According to Gwynne Shotwell, the company president, SpaceX hope to achieve three to seven Starlink launches this year, including this mission.  However exact numbers depend on the success of the first launch.

Will the satellites clutter up the space environment?

Although the system would be “economically viable” with 1,000 satellites in orbit, Elon Musk has spoken of ambitions to send 12,000 spacecrafts into space. Starlink is just one of several companies, including Amazon and OneWeb who are hoping to achieve similar results.  As a result many worry that these high numbers of satellites for broadband services and other purposes could clutter up the space environment.

To put numbers into perspective, there are currently 2000 satellites in space.  Ambitious projects from SpaceX and other companies are set to completely dwarf this number in the years to come.  In response to these criticisms, Elon Musk has highlighted Starlink satellites are fitted with technology to track orbiting debris.  He also stated that the satellites are made of materials that exceed current standard safety measures when they burn up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Although this recent launch is a momentous moment for SpaceX and their Starlink project, there is much to do before the orbiting broadband service is operational.  Nevertheless this launch marks the beginning of another chapter for the innovative space exploration company.

SourcesBBC, SpaceNews

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