Latest Starlink Launch Makes SpaceX the Largest Commercial Satellite Operator in the World

A Falcon 9 rocket launching with 60 Starlink satellites onboard from Cape Canaveral on January 6, 2020.
A Falcon 9 rocket launching with 60 Starlink satellites onboard from Cape Canaveral on January 6, 2020.
Image: SpaceX

The successful launch of 60 new Starlink satellites means SpaceX now operates more commercial satellites than any other company in the world. It’s a major milestone for the Elon Musk-led company, which still needs to show it’s capable of responsibly managing its burgeoning megaconsellation.

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Deployment of the 60 Starlink satellites was confirmed earlier today in a SpaceX tweet. The satellites were delivered to an orbit of 290 kilometers (180 miles) by a Falcon 9 rocket, which departed Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 9:19 p.m. ET on Monday, January 6.

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This marks the third mass deployment of Starlink satellites, the previous two occurring in May and November of last year. Once operational, the satellite constellation will deliver broadband internet to paying customers around the globe.

The satellites will now be evaluated to make sure they’re all functioning properly. Once SpaceX completes this checkout, the mini-sats will engage their onboard ion thrusters and move to their intended orbits some 550 kilometers (342 miles) above the Earth’s surface—a process that takes anywhere from one to four months. During the early stages of this roll-out, the satellites are clustered closely together, making them visible from the Earth’s surface.

Less than 15 minutes after the launch, the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket landed successfully on the Of Course I Still Love You droneship positioned in the Atlantic ocean. The faring recovery vessel, Ms. Tree, failed to recover the faring, according to Space.

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This latest launch brings the total number of Starlink satellites to 182, though the actual figure may be closer to 172, as SpaceNews reports:

It’s not clear if all 182 Starlink satellites will be part of the constellation SpaceX expects to begin service with later this year. Some 10 satellites from SpaceX’s May 2019 Starlink launch never reached their final operational orbit, according to a Jan. 2 report from Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who tracks satellite movements.

SpaceX said in July that three Starlink satellites had failed shortly after launch, and that another two healthy satellites would be intentionally deorbited as practice. The company did not respond to a SpaceNews inquiry Jan. 6 as to why 10 satellites have not reached their target orbit instead of five.

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This quibbling aside, SpaceX can now call itself the world’s largest commercial satellite operator, surpassing California-based Planet Labs and its fleet of 150 Earth-surveying satellites.

This represents the tip of the iceberg, however, as SpaceX is seeking to create a megaconstellation of 42,000 individual satellites. The private company expects to deploy around 1,440 new Starlink satellites by the end of 2020, which will require at least two launches per month. This rapid launch tempo is made possible by virtue of SpaceX being able leverage its normally scheduled commercial launches, filling the extra cargo space with Starlink satellites.

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These satellite launches have stirred controversy among astronomers, who complain that the Starlink roll-outs and the ensuing satellite trains are interfering with astronomical observations. Back in November of last year, for example, astronomers at a Chilean observatory released a photo of the satellite train passing directly overhead.

SpaceX has downplayed these concerns, saying the effect is only temporary and that once the satellites reach their intended orbit, “the satellites become significantly less visible from the ground,” as the company noted in its Starlink press kit.

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That may be the case, but given the expected rate of two to three launches per month for the foreseeable future and the length of time required for these satellites to ascend to their service orbits, it seems these deployments are set to become a regular fixture of the night sky.

Because of these complaints, SpaceX is actively trying to reduce the albedo, or reflectivity, of its Starlink satellites. To that end, one of the satellites launched yesterday was painted black with an “experimental darkening treatment,” according to SpaceX. The company will now monitor this lone dark-sat to see how well the idea works. As to whether these low-albedo satellites will alleviate astronomical disruptions remains to be seen.

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There’s also the threat of accumulating space junk to consider. Starlink satellites are being placed along orbits that will see them fall naturally into the atmosphere in around 25 years, which abides by guidelines proposed—but not enforced—by NASA and other space agencies.

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As more objects are tossed into low Earth orbit, however, the risk of debris-creating collisions increases. SpaceX wants to build a megaconstellation consisting of tens of thousands of satellites, and rival companies, including OneWeb, Telsat, and Amazon, have similar aspirations to create large-scale megaconstellations. Managing these space-based assets—which could number into the hundreds of thousands before we know it—will get increasingly precarious (for reference, there are over 5,000 satellites currently in orbit around Earth, which includes the latest batch of Starlink satellites).

The construction of space-based infrastructures appears to be inevitable, but that doesn’t mean this futuristic development should unfold without foresight, regulations, and safety in mind. It’s time for governments, space agencies, scientists, and other stakeholders to establish sensible and enforceable rules, while holding these private companies accountable for their actions.

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Correction: A previous version of this article said that the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket landed on the droneship 45 minutes after launch; it actually landed less than 15 minutes after. We regret the error and thank commenter Agamemnerd for pointing it out.

George is a senior staff reporter at Gizmodo.

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DISCUSSION

I saw a documentary called Gravity that was about the debris problem. It didn’t go great for them.

I’m sure it’ll be easier when we increase the number of satellites in orbit by 740% though, to say nothing of the additional space debris those launches leave behind to add to the 21,000 pieces between 5 centimeters and 1 meter already being tracked by NASA.