SpaceX accelerates its production and manufactures 120 Starlink Internet satellites per month. An unprecedented pace in the space industry
SpaceX is increasing production of its Starlink smallsat satellites for broadband Internet and is currently producing 120 satellites per month, according to a presentation to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last month. According to analysts cited by CNBC, this rate of production is unprecedented in the space industry. SpaceX, Elon Musk's company, has completed 10 launches of its satellites, bringing the total to nearly 600 in orbit. The company has also requested an increase in the number of its terminals.
Starlink is SpaceX's ambitious plan to build an interconnected network of about 12,000 small satellites to transmit broadband Internet from orbit to anywhere in the world. Last October, the company applied to the International Telecommunication Union for authorization to operate an additional 30,000 satellites, completing the world's largest satellite megaconstellation to date with 42,000 small Starlink satellites. The global network, which will bring the Internet to the most disadvantaged areas, is expected to be operational by 2025.
Since May 24, 2019, when the company launched its first 60 smallsats, SpaceX has placed 595 Starlink smallsats in low Earth orbit during 10 successful missions. The most recent mission took place on August 7. A SpaceX Falcon 9 B5 launch vehicle placed 57 small Starlink probes into low Earth orbit at an altitude of 550 km. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said SpaceX needs 400 to 800 Starlink satellites in orbit to begin deploying minimal coverage. As that goal nears, SpaceX is interested in the arrival of a beta program, which will help the company test the service for possible global consumption.
Last month, SpaceX confirmed the increase in satellite production to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, stating that it is "currently building 120 satellites per month. The Musk company also said in its presentation that it has "invested more than $70 million in the development and production of thousands of user terminals per month". It also said it has "invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Starlink to date," according to the SpaceX presentation.
According to CNBC, it is difficult to put into context what the production rate of SpaceX's satellites means, given the difference in size and complexity of spacecraft built by other companies. But Quilty Analytics founder Chris Quilty told CNBC that Starlink is being built at a speed never before seen in the satellite industry. Quilty's research and investment company is focused on the satellite communications sector.
SpaceX builds Starlink satellites 20 times faster than Iridium's NEXT satellites.
"To put things in perspective, Iridium, which previously held the record for the largest commercial satellite constellation, was building satellites at a rate of about six satellites per month at peak production," said Quilty.
CNBC reports that Iridium's NEXT satellites have nearly three times the mass of a Starlink satellite, about 670 kilograms versus an estimated 260 kilograms. But even allowing for the fact that each Starlink is smaller than an Iridium satellite, SpaceX builds its spacecraft 20 times faster. Quilty pointed out that the Iridium satellites were built by the European aerospace conglomerate Thales Alenia Space.
Compared to rival startup OneWeb - a proposed constellation of about 600 telecommunications satellites also operating in low earth orbit to provide high-speed Internet access to individuals - it was building satellites at a rate of about 30 per month before going bankrupt, CNBC reported. Quilty also pointed out that OneWeb's production line was designed and built in collaboration with Airbus, another European aerospace giant. Quilty concluded that this makes Starlink the only one of the three to have satellites built solely by a US company, as well as the most productive.
"American ingenuity prevails once again," Quilty said.
In July, SpaceX filed an application with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission requesting an increase in the number of authorized user terminals from 1 million to 5 million. Indeed, since SpaceX has updated the Starlink project Web site to allow potential customers to "receive updates on Starlink news and services available in their regions," the company is already seeing "extraordinary demand" from those interested in the Internet service. "Nearly 700,000 people" across the United States have expressed interest in the service, prompting SpaceX to apply to the FCC to allow an increase in the number of terminals.
The search for solutions to light pollution continues
With January's mission, SpaceX launched a satellite called DarkSat with an "experimental darkening treatment", which aims to reduce the brightness of the megaconstellation of satellites, which scientists fear could interfere with astronomical observations. The company continues to search for solutions to this problem. For example, the Starlink satellites on the latest mission are somewhat different from those previously launched. According to Space.com, a Web site on space and astronomy, all 57 of them are equipped with a special visor that reduces their apparent brightness.
The visor, as SpaceX calls it, is a deployable visor designed to prevent sunlight from reflecting off the brightest parts of the satellites, such as the antennas. The company - along with astronomers and starry sky advocates around the world - hopes to reduce the overall brightness of the Starlink fleet. This will allow them to appear as dark as possible in the night sky, minimizing their impact on night sky observations.
CNBC reports that the main bottleneck in Starlink's service at present appears to be the speed at which SpaceX can launch the satellites, according to industry analyst Bryce Space and Technology. The company has launched Starlink missions about once a month with its fleet of 60 satellites in its Falcon 9 vehicle.
"With 60 satellites in the Falcon 9, SpaceX also is expected to bring its Starlink launcher into service as soon as possible, as the company says each one will be able to carry 400 Starlink satellites at a time, Phil Smith, senior space analyst at Bryce Space, told CNBC.
According to one commentator, it would be wise to wait until beta testing is complete before increasing production of the Starlink satellites.
"There's no point in accelerating the production of these satellites until their beta testing is complete. It would be really awful if they deployed 12,000 satellites only to find out that there's a major hardware problem. What do you think?