SpaceX joins internet-from-space race with launch of 60 Starlink satellites

SpaceX had a great night on Thursday, May 23, successfully deploying its first batch of 60 internet satellites designed to beam cheap broadband across the planet.

Two previous launch attempts had been scuppered by bad weather, but this time around, improved conditions allowed the SpaceX team to get on with the job.

Carrying its heaviest payload ever at 18.5 tons (16.8 metric tons), the Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida just after 10:30 p.m. ET on Thursday. Live-streamed on YouTube, SpaceX staff could be heard breaking into wild celebrations at every successful stage of the mission.

Three-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, the rocket’s faring fell away to reveal the 60 small satellites packed together, awaiting deployment. Six minutes after that, the first-stage booster made a perfect landing — its third so far in the reusable rocket’s lifetime — on SpaceX’s drone ship as it bobbed up and down in the Atlantic Ocean.

At about 11:30 p.m. ET — an hour after launch — SpaceX achieved exactly what it’d set out to do by successfully deploying the 60 Starlink satellites into orbit — by far the largest number of satellites it’s ever deployed in a single mission.

As the cluster of satellites drifted slowly away from the spacecraft, SpaceX software engineer and event commentator Tom Praderio described it as “an incredible moment” for the company.

According to what we’ve seen so far of Thursday night’s mission, the earlier-expressed fears of SpaceX CEO Elon Musk that “much will likely go wrong on 1st mission” appear unfounded.

Through the $10 billion Starlink project, SpaceX aims to deploy a total of 12,000 satellites into low-Earth orbit to create a broadband network providing low-cost, high-speed global internet coverage.

SpaceX will begin with the deployment of 4,425 Starlink satellites into low-Earth orbit followed by an additional 7,518 satellites at an even lower orbit.

The higher satellites will orbit Earth at an altitude of between 690 miles (1,110 km) and 823 miles (1,325 km) and act as the backbone of the Starlink broadband service, while the lower satellites will orbit at altitudes of between 208 miles (335 km) and 215 miles (346 km) and be used to boost capacity and lower latency, especially important in densely populated areas.

Musk has said that six further launches, each with 60 satellites, will be needed for “minor” internet coverage, and an additional 12 launches for “moderate” coverage.

The Federal Communications Commission greenlit SpaceX’s Starlink plan toward the end of last year, but on condition that the company deploys half of its satellites within six years and all of them within nine years, unless a waiver is granted.

SpaceX isn’t the only company interested in using satellites to build broadband services, with Facebook, Amazon, and SoftBank-backed OneWeb, for example, continuing to develop their own separate projects.

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