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SpaceX CEO Elon Musk explained on Wednesday how the company’s Starlink satellite network will be the company’s money-maker, key to unlocking his vision of sending astronauts to Mars.
Musk spoke hours before the company’s first full launch of Starlink satellites on a call with media. For the first time, Musk talked about the network’s timeline and gave details about how the company’s satellites work, confirming as well that SpaceX has the capital required to complete the project’s first major phase.
Starlink represents the company’s ambitious plan to build an interconnected internet satellite network, also known as a “constellation,” to beam high speed internet to anywhere on the planet. The full Starlink network would consist of 11,943 satellites flying close to the planet, closer than the International Space Station, in what is known as low Earth orbit.
“We see this as a way for SpaceX to generate revenue that can be used to develop more and more advanced rockets and spaceships,” Musk said.
“We believe we can use the revenue from Starlink to fund Starship,” Musk added.
SpaceX has built and launched its Falcon series of rockets more than 70 times. While the rockets rank among the most powerful in the world, Musk’s ultimate vision is to send humans to live on Mars – which requires even larger rockets. That’s where Starship comes in, the massive rocket SpaceX has begun testing over the last few months. Starship is designed to be a fully reusable launch system, to transport as many as 100 people at a time to-and-from the moon or Mars.
On the call, Musk clarified that SpaceX’s recent fundraising rounds “have been oversubscribed.” He said SpaceX has enough funding to build and launch enough Starlink satellites to begin using the network.
“At this point it looks like we have sufficient capital to get to an operational level,” Musk said.
Musk shared a photo of the 60 Starlink satellites on Saturday after they were packed into the nosecone of the Falcon 9 rocket.
SpaceX “Starlink” satellites stacked inside the nosecone of its rocket before launch.
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SpaceX launched two demonstration satellites in February 2018 but much of the program, and the satellites’ design, remained unknown. Although Musk fired the head of the Starlink program in June – a vice president who Jeff Bezos promptly hired to develop a similar network – SpaceX has continued to advance the program quickly. In filings with the Federal Communications Commission, SpaceX noted a few changes to its plans, such as that the first part of Starlink would operate at a “very low Earth orbit.” SpaceX also submitted an application this year to operate 1 million “earth stations” in the U.S., key to connecting the satellites to the ground.
Musk said SpaceX will need “6 more launches of 60” satellites per launch to get “minor coverage” for the internet network. A dozen launches, or 720 satellites, are needed “for moderate” coverage,” he added.
He went into more technical details about the satellites’ design and capabilities than previously disclosed. Each Starlink satellite has “about a terabit of useful connectivity,” Musk said.
Starlink is one of the keys to the financing SpaceX’s future endeavors. Yet it also is an “absolutely insane” project requiring likely billions of dollars of investment to get operational, Musk has said.
“SpaceX has to be incredibly spartan with expenditures until those programs reach fruition,” Musk said in January. Musk blamed layoffs at SpaceX in January in part due to Starlink.
SpaceX is one of several of these constellations in development, competing with Softbank-backed OneWeb, Amazon’s Project Kuiper, Canadian operator Telesat and more. These ambitious satellite networks will require intensive capital, with some industry officials estimating costs running as high as $5 billion.
The satellite constellations expect to offer broadband speeds comparable to fiber optic networks, according to federal documents, by essentially creating a blanket connection across the electromagnetic spectrum. The satellites would offer new direct-to-consumer wireless connections, rather than the present system’s redistribution of signals.