Watch: Elon Musk's company has just launched 60 satellites that can provide most of the Earth with high-speed internet access

Business Insider US
An illustration of Starlink, a fleet of internet-providing satellites that may one day surround the world.

  • SpaceX, the rocket company founded by Elon Musk, launched a rocket carrying 60 of its first of 12,000 internet-providing Starlink satellites on Thursday night.
  • Starlink may cover much of Earth in high-speed, low-lag internet access, even before it's complete.
  • The five dozen spacecraft launched aboard a Falcon 9 rocket overnight from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
  • SpaceX broadcast live video of the launch attempt - its third in two weeks - starting 15 minutes before liftoff of the rocket.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Elon Musk's rocket company, SpaceX, rocketed the first 60 of nearly 12,000 internet-providing satellites into orbit.

Musk recently shared an image of the spacecraft crammed inside the nosecone of a Falcon 9 rocket. The 70m-tall vehicle lifted off Thursday night from Space Launch Complex-40 in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Last night's launch marks the company's third in two weeks. SpaceX originally tried to launch the mission on May 15, but high-altitude winds looked too threatening. The company said it'd try the next day, but cancelled the launch shortly before lift-off to update the software of its five dozen satellites.

A fleet of 60 Starlink internet-providing satellites stuffed into the nosecone of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
SpaceX is footing the bill for Starlink missions, and Musk said this one will be experimental in nature. Weighing in at nearly 19 tons, the satellite-packed payload represents the heaviest payload the company has ever attempted to launch.

"Much will likely go wrong on 1st mission," he tweeted on May 11.

To save what may amount to tens of millions of dollars, SpaceX is relying on a twice-launched 16-story rocket booster that previously helped deliver commercial satellites into orbit in September and January. Musk said the Starlink launch will also reuse fairings - clamshell-like halves that make up a rocket's nosecone - that flew on an April 11 rocket launch.

During a call with reporters on May 15, Musk noted that the broadcast will show the satellites - each weighing about 227 kilograms - deploy between two to three hours after launch.

He added that the deployment shown on the webcast will look very unusual.

"It's going to be a very slow deployment, where we rotate the [upper] stage, and each of the satellites on the stack have a different inertia," he said, which will eject them into space without any springs. "It will almost seem like spreading a deck of cards on a table. This will look kind of weird compared to other satellite deployments. There may even be some contact, but the satellites are designed to handle it."

Once a satellite is on its own, it will perform some checks, warm up ion engines, and gradually scoot into a final position and higher orbit, from 440 kilometers to 550 kilometers high.

"I do believe we will be successful, but it is far from a sure thing," he said.

What Starlink is and why it matters

SpaceX plans to complete its Starlink in 2027, which is the full-deployment deadline issued by the Federal Communications Commission.

In its final form, Starlink will consist of nearly 12,000 satellites - six times the number of all operational spacecraft now in orbit - in several orbital "shells." Each satellite would link to four others via laser beams, creating a robust mesh network around Earth.

The goal is to use Starlink to relay internet traffic at close to the speed that light travels through a vacuum (which is about 50% faster than light can travel through glass in fiber-optic cables).

The first 60 satellites are not a final design, as they lack the laser interlinks. But they're close enough to help SpaceX test several key technologies required to make Starlink work.

An illustration of Starlink, a constellation of internet-providing satellites designed by SpaceX. This image shows roughly 4,400 satellites deployed in three different orbital "shells."

As the network of Starlink satellites gets built up in space, most places on Earth could gain access to high-speed, low-latency, and affordable internet connections that rival the speed of those found in well-wired cities. Even partial deployment of Starlink would benefit the financial sector and bring pervasive broadband internet to rural and remote areas.

Musk said a dozen launches of 60 satellites could bring "minor" service to the US, about 24 could bring "moderate" and near-global service, and 30 would cement a robust global network. However, he said about 1,000 satellites, or roughly 17 launches, would be needed to make Starlink a profitable enterprise.

Based on Musk's estimates, SpaceX plans to launch 60 Starlink satellites 15 times a year, which means the robust global network may be realized in a little more than a year.

Completing the 12,000-satellite project may cost $10 billion or more, according to Gwynne Shotwell, the president and chief operating officer of SpaceX. But Musk estimates that Starlink's revenue could grab 3-5% of a $1 trillion telecommunications market, which translates to $30-50 billion a year - many times more annual revenue than the company makes launching payloads for companies or the US government.

"This is the most exciting new network we've seen in a long time," Mark Handley, a computer-networking researcher at University College London who has studied Starlink, previously told Business Insider. He added that the project could affect the lives of "potentially everybody."

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