- SpaceX launched and set loose the first 60 of nearly 12,000 planned high-speed internet satellites above Earth on Thursday night.
- Elon Musk, the company’s founder, previously said the Starlink satellites would “look kind of weird” as they floated away from their rocket and into space.
- A live webcast of the rocket launch captured the five dozen satellites doing just that as they shuffled and bumped into orbit.
- The spacecraft are expected to slowly separate, light up their ion engines, and gradually ascend to a higher orbit before undergoing weeks of internet testing.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
SpaceX, the rocket company founded by Elon Musk, successfully launched its first five dozen Starlink telecommunications satellites on Thursday night.
If all goes according to plan in the coming weeks, the new fleet of experimental spacecraft may pave the way for a global and lucrative high-speed internet revolution— and possibly within a couple of years.
SpaceX live-broadcasted the inaugural Starlink mission, which launched aboard a Falcon 9 rocket at 10:30 p.m. ET from Cape Canaveral, Florida. A little more than an hour after liftoff — somewhere over the ocean about halfway between Australia and Antarctica — the rocket’s upper stage deployed the 30,000-lb (13,600-kilogram) stack of satellites all at once. (Video of the maneuver is shown below.)
Elon Musk, the rocket company’s founder, previously described it as an odd yet efficient way to get five dozen spacecraft off a rocket.
“This will look kind of weird compared to normal satellite deployments,” Musk told reporters during a call on May 15.
When a rocket launches many satellites at once, typically a device at the top of the rocket’s uppermost stage deploys them, one by one, with complex and heavy spring-loaded mechanisms. SpaceX launched one such mission in December, deploying a cornucopia of 64 satellites with one rocket.
But SpaceX eschewed that approach for unusual one: It slowly spun the rocket’s upper stage, then let the stack of Starlinks float off into space.
“There are no deployment mechanisms between those spacecraft, so they really are slowly fanning out like a deck of cards into space,” Tom Praderio, a SpaceX software engineer, said while hosting the mission’s webcast.
Praderio quickly added: “You can kind of see one breaking away from the pack right now. Those spacecraft will slowly disperse over time.”
The video below shows the Starlink deployment 360% faster than it actually happened.
Big plans for Starlink’s future
Each Starlink satellite is roughly the size of an office desk and weighs about 500 pounds (227 kilograms), comes with a single solar panel, and a suite of internet antennas.
The spacecraft also have a weak but highly efficient Hall thruster (or ion engine) for avoiding other satellites, dodging known space junk, and eventually deorbiting and destroying themselves. But most immediately, the engines will shoot out krypton gas ions to slowly ascend from 273 miles (440 kilometers) to 342 miles (550 kilometers) above Earth.
SpaceX’s first 60 Starlink satellites lack a critical component, though: laser beams.
Such lasers would connect each Starlink satellite to four others, forming a robust mesh network above Earth that can move internet traffic at close to the speed of light in a vacuum. That’s nearly 50% faster than fiber-optic cables can transmit data on the ground, and it’d grant Starlink a huge advantage in cutting lag.
With this first batch, though, Musk said SpaceX will test the Starlink internet concept by talking to the spacecraft from ground stations and routing data from one satellite to another.
SpaceX’s goal with Starlink is to launch up to 12,000 similar satellites — nearly seven times the number of operational spacecraft in orbit now — before a 2027 deadline established by the US Federal Communications Commission. To achieve that amount, SpaceX would have to launch more than one Starlink mission per month over the next eight years.
But not nearly that many are required to make the concept work and bring global internet access.
Musk said SpaceX had “sufficient capital” to get Starlink operational and suggested the Starlink project could start making money long before the full constellation maxes out.
“For the system to be economically viable, it’s really on the order of 1,000 satellites,” Musk said, “which is obviously a lot of satellites, but it’s way less than 10,000 or 12,000.”
The pervasiveness of the overhead satellites also means Starlink could bring almost lag-free broadband internet to most regions of Earth, as well as airplanes, ships, and even cars (perhaps Tesla electric vehicles to start). Musk has said multiple times that he’d like to make such internet access affordable, particularly in areas with little to no web service.
Mark Handley, a computer-networking researcher at University College London who has studied Starlink, previously told Business Insider that the project could affect the lives of “potentially everybody” by bringing high-speed and pervasive broadband to most parts of the world.
“This is the most exciting new network we’ve seen in a long time,” Handley said.