SpaceX is on a collision course with the world’s biggest telecom and satellite manufacturing companies, as it steps up development of its “Starlink” network of satellites.
The company will soon test its first satellites, Microsat 2a and 2b, which are headed for orbit aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, according to documents filed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). These satellites will take the next step into space, which is critical for the network’s progress.
On Saturday, SpaceX scrapped plans to launch on Sunday, in the interest of performing “final checks’, and rescheduled for February 21st. However, the company’s big ambitions remain on track.
Starlink – a name SpaceX filed to trademark last year – is an ambition unmatched by any current satellite network. The largest existing constellation is built by Iridium, with the company halfway through launching its new 75 Iridium Next satellites to space, set to finish deployment in the next year.
While SpaceX made no official announcement about its secondary payloads, the Federal Communications Commision issued experimental licenses to the company to conduct the mission. The company wants to place 4,425 of these small spacecraft in low-Earth orbit—between 600 and 800 miles above the Earth’s surface—and hopes to officially begin doing so next year.
Then, SpaceX wants to create an even larger constellation of over 7,500 of its satellites just 200 miles up which could help make them good on the pitch: making high-speed internet accessible anywhere on the globe. In a filing to the FCC, SpaceX explained that the experimental microsats being launched will help the company prove the basic infrastructure of the small spacecraft is sound and that the electronic systems housed inside work properly. Most importantly, in SpaceX needed the ability to test ground-to-space communications.
The FCC granted the license, which highlights one significant component to the plan: The satellites will not be in a fixed position in orbit. In order to provide the coverage they are selling, SpaceX will have to constantly shift and synchronize thousands of these spacecraft as they zoom around the globe. The company’s goal, according to projections obtained by the Wall Street Journal, is to have subscribed over 40 million customers by 2025, which would amount to nearly $30 billion in total revenue. SpaceX could potentially milk that even more if it decides to enter the growing Earth-imaging market or find other tasks for its satellite fleet. The company previously applied for a NOAA license which would have allowed SpaceX to install a video imager to its prototype internet satellites. The plan was scrapped when the prototypes were redesigned, and no second NOAA application was filed for Microsat-2a and Microsat-2b.
SpaceX isn’t the only company hoping to get a piece of the billion-dollar broadband market. OneWeb, which is currently building its campus just down the road from SpaceX at Kennedy Space Center, plans to start building a constellation of 900 broadband satellites next year. The company is contracting Soyuz, Blue Origin’s New Glenn, and Virgin Galactic LauncherOne to carry batches of its spacecraft to orbit, none of which will be prototypes. Boeing is reportedly also entering the space internet market.