At that time, SpaceX began to win many contracts, but despite NASA’s support for several projects, the developments were expensive. The reuse of launchers is not yet a success, and the company is stalling on some future projects, such as Falcon Heavy, the Raptor engine or even the long-term vehicle project to get to Mars and colonize the red planet. In other words, Elon Musk knows that to continue to disrupt space, new sources of income will be needed. How about satellites? After all, SpaceX customers generate several hundred million dollars each year for some of them through their geostationary orbit units dedicated to telecommunications… The billionaire discusses it with a good knowledge, Greg Wyler who has already launched 12 satellites dedicated to Internet connectivity with his company, O3b (literally “Other 3 trillion” in reference to the 3 billion landowners who do not have access to the Internet). Would it be possible to do even more? To create a real constellation of satellites to connect the world?
Two operators are on a boat…
The two bosses think so, but they can’t agree. So behind the scenes, everyone spends the end of the year attracting investors, preparing requests for the frequencies of their potential satellites, and touring the manufacturers. On January 14, 2015, Greg Wyler opened the ball rolling and unveiled the OneWeb project with the support of Virgin and Qualcomm. 700 satellites in low orbit to connect the world, starting with the most remote areas. But two days later, thunderbolt. Even if some rumours had leaked, Elon Musk responded with his own project. In a conference to inaugurate a new SpaceX site in Seattle, he revealed that the building will house a new branch of the company, dedicated to satellite design and production, revealing “the desire to shake up this field as we have shaken up the launchers”. But above all, it unveils its own Internet connectivity project, with more than 4,000 satellites in low orbit. And to mention, on stage, the implementation of a real satellite assembly line in series, the administrative procedures already in place and a marketing plan. Starlink, which would not be called Starlink until two years later, was launched.
Dozens of satellites…
Exchanges of courtesies
After the thundering announcements of January 2015, the following three years saw a veritable “trench warfare” of mega-constellations, in which everything was allowed. OneWeb first tried to torpedo its opponent in court, without success. Then SpaceX tries to block its competitors by submitting myriad requests for frequency allocation and orbits to the competent authorities. The figure rises from 4,400 satellites to almost 12,000, spread over 340 km (V frequency band), 550 km and 1200 km altitude (Ku and Ka frequency bands). At SpaceX, which plans to use its own plant, and is forced to hire dozens of specialists in antennas, propulsion, network connectivity and other components, OneWeb is responding with an agreement with Airbus Defense and Space, which will design and produce the satellites from a new site in Florida. The two giants are slowly flipping their cards one after the other: after the first dates that Gwynne Shotwell (Chief Operating Officer of SpaceX) announces for launches on the Falcon 9 rocket, OneWeb signs for 21 Soyuz takeoffs with Arianespace.
One step forward, two steps back
In addition to this duel, the 2015-2018 period is not easy to negotiate. For SpaceX, it is necessary to manage the failures of its launchers in 2015 and 2016, a destroyed launch pad to be rebuilt, not to mention a drop in orders from the major telecommunications satellite operators. This is the paradox of Elon Musk’s business, he needs funds (at least $10 billion announced) to create his giant constellation… Even though the latter has added a layer to the crisis of confidence that the giants of the sector are going through when they buy launchers from it! Traditional" operators take time to observe the market response before investing in other satellites in geostationary positions (each unit can cost between $100 million and $750 million). Especially since these increasing super-constellations could disrupt their services by “cutting” the beams of their satellites. Complaints, complaints, disputes, technical difficulties, the context is not very good for SpaceX… Nor for OneWeb, which is struggling to find funds and has to endure delays. To make matters worse, other constellations have attracted the attention of investors (such as Telesat, and more recently Kuiper)
Tintin and Tintin
On February 22, 2018, two Starlink satellites were sent into orbit during a Falcon 9 takeoff. Test units, called Tintin A and B, for which SpaceX has only shared a few rare images, and which do not prefigure the final design. According to the company, the initial tests are going well, but the two satellites ask many questions: they will never reach the original altitude of 1,125 km they were supposed to climb, and according to the amateur radio community (who closely observed the prototypes), they did not emit much. A few months later, another surprising news, after a visit of the CEO to Seattle, some of Starlink’s managers were simply… fired. A second batch of experimental satellites is expected, but does not materialize in 2018. Blessed bread for opponents: on February 27, 2019, OneWeb sent 6 pre-series copies to the operational orbit of its constellation.
Satellite, krypton option
However, serial production at OneWeb has not yet started. What a surprise then when SpaceX announces and then sends 60 satellites into orbit during a single launch on May 24, 2019! True to their habits, SpaceX teams have created a surprising architecture. A Starlink satellite weighs about 225 kg, is equipped with flat antennas, and a single unfoldable solar panel. It communicates (for this first generation) in Ka and Ku band, and its propulsion is provided by small ionic krypton engines, a first. Indeed, many satellites (including those of Oneweb) use similar technology, but with Xenon… Which is 10 times more expensive. Representing a record 13.7 tonnes of payload under the Falcon 9 cap, Starlink satellites are stacked without ejection devices, and rest “simply” on top of each other. An economic, but surprising choice: when the whole cluster of satellites arrives in orbit, it slowly moves away, letting its 60 units move away from each other at low speed. The units are then activated one by one and begin their manoeuvres.
60… 59, 58, 57
Since May 24, the Starlink constellation has been undergoing tests. The design of the satellites is “not fixed”, says Elon Musk, since these first units do not have the full range of equipment expected in the long term, such as communication links between the various satellites to establish a “mesh” of the in-orbit network. Of the 60, only about 50 units are in orbit at 550 km altitude and active, but the first few months were rich in lessons before other units in the constellation were set up. On October 21, Elon Musk was surprised in public to have succeeded in sending a first tweet via Starlink… But other potential customers are also testing it: the US Air Force, through the DEUCSI program (Defense Experimentation Using the Commercial Space Internet) used Starlink in one of its aircraft, and would have been very impressed with the speed obtained. SpaceX has already won a “small” $23 million contract to let the defense test some communications with the device.
Artist’s view of a Starlink satellite
The next takeoff with a “batch” of 60 Starlink satellites is expected to take place on Monday, November 11 at around 4pm, and has been delayed since October without the company giving a specific reason (however this may be related to the launcher). A second takeoff in the service of the constellation could, according to Gwynne Shotwell, take place before the end of the year. A preview of 2020 and its potential… 24 Falcon 9 takeoffs in service of Starlink. The objective is clear, to put as many satellites as possible into orbit to obtain initial global coverage and start marketing its services before other competitors. Next year will therefore be decisive, and will show (or not) if Starlink can be convincing… While still restricted to a targeted audience: the global constellation and Internet operator services for the general public will have to wait.
A tight mesh
Of course, Starlink also generates a lot of concern. For potential debris in low orbit first: the two “working” orbits at 340 and 550 km altitude do not pose many problems in the event of a failure of one or more units, a drifting satellite of this size and mass being braked to the point of burning in the atmosphere in less than a year, but the possible 3,000 units in orbit at an altitude of more than 1,100 km will not have this chance (a satellite at 1,000 km altitude takes about 1,000 years to brake sufficiently to burn in the atmosphere without propulsion). There is also the problem of potential impacts in orbit with debris (or other satellites) due to sound orbits.