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Musk changing mind on Starlink launches?

January 12, 2022

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is altering its plan to send another 30,000 satellites in its Starlink mega-constellation into space using its existing Falcon 9 rocket fleet.

A SpaceX lawyer, William Wiltshire, in a letter to the FCC explains that progress on the constellation is moving forward better than expected and that SpaceX plans to start launching its second generation spacecraft as early as this coming March.

SpaceX is currently approved by the FCC to launch 4408 satellites into various low Earth orbits and close to half have now been orbited. The FCC has yet to approve SpaceX plan to launch the larger, Gen2, satellites. SpaceX is politely asking the FCC to “expedite” its approval process.

“Just as terrestrial wireless networks meet customer demands by operating more than one generation of technology simultaneously, SpaceX plans to use both of its networks to provide superior service,” Wiltshire said to the FCC, adding that SpaceX would continue to maintain its first-generation system, launching replacement satellites as appropriate to sustain the orbits in which it operates, even as it conducts the initial deployment of the Gen2 system.

“To be clear, operating both systems simultaneously does not mean that SpaceX will necessarily operate all of the satellites under its authorizations at all times in all areas,” he stated.

Bringing the giant Starship on board (and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has yet to give its go-ahead for a debut launch for Starship) and with the FCC approving the expanded system would mean another 29,998 new satellites in twelve different orbital configurations operating at heights between 340 kms and 614 kms.

Musk’s team has proven beyond doubt its ability to launch multiple missions per month, and combining Starlink with plenty of lucrative NASA and other scientific and paying clients during each month. But even the most enthusiastic ‘back of the envelope’ math suggests that at around 50-55 Starlinks per flight, and even with two Starlink launches per month, it will take a year to place around 1200 satellites into orbit. Raising that cadence to three launches per month will only then begin to get close to placing an overall 3000-3500 satellites into orbit.

That number is more than enough to serve initial consumer demand and on a global basis. But using Starship and its reported cargo bay of some 400 craft per launch would be a much speedier route to success.

The letter from SpaceX to the FCC suggests that once the FAA gives the Starship approval to launch, and following on from a test flight or two then Musk’s team could start launching those 400 satellites per Starship. The FAA is expected to make its environmental decision on February 28th.

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