- SpaceX plans to launch 60 internet-providing Starlink satellites into orbit on Thursday night.
- Elon Musk, the rocket company’s founder, said the deployment of the satellites – the first of nearly 12,000 planned for launch – “will look kind of weird.”
- Musk said the Starlink deployment process would be broadcast live about an hour after launch.
- The spacecraft are set to launch aboard a Falcon 9 rocket between 10:30 and midnight ET from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
SpaceX is about to broadcast live video of a scene in space so strange that Elon Musk struggled to describe it.
The rocket company plans to launch a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, between 10:30 and midnight ET on Thursday, and broadcast the event live.
Stacked inside the top of the rocket will be 60 next-generation satellites – the first of a global internet network called Starlink, which in its final form may boast 12,000 such satellites. That’s nearly seven times the number of operational satellites that orbit Earth today.
Each Starlink satellite is roughly the size of an office desk and weighs about 500 pounds (227 kilograms). In total, the satellites and the key parts of the upper-stage rocket they’ll ride into orbit together weigh more than 18 tons.
“This is the heaviest payload Falcon 9 has ever launched,” Musk said during a call with reporters on Wednesday night.
In fact, it’s the heaviest payload SpaceX has ever tried to launch, including with its behemoth Falcon Heavy rocket.
Deploying five dozen spacecraft into orbit at once is no trivial task, and SpaceX plans to show off the process during a live webcast on YouTube, embedded below.
‘This will look kind of weird’
SpaceX has a lot of experience launching many satellites at once. In December, for example, it put 64 satellites into space.
But that mission used heavy spring-loaded mechanisms to pop out each satellite, and most of the spacecraft were far smaller and lighter than Starlink satellites. (SpaceX also used a subcontractor to build the satellite-deploying stack for the mission.)
To keep the weight and complexity of Thursday’s in-house mission to a minimum, SpaceX engineers are trying something unusual, Musk said.
“It’s going to be a very slow deployment, where we rotate the [upper] stage,” Musk said.
The precise arrangement of the Starlink satellites will give each a unique inertia as the rocket spins, Musk said, causing the spacecraft to float out of and away from their slots in the stack at different times and speeds.
“It will seem like spreading a deck of cards on a table,” Musk said. “This will look kind of weird compared to normal satellite deployments.”
He added that the satellites may touch or bump into one another during deployment, “but it will be very, very slow, and the satellites are designed to handle it.”
Musk said each Starlink would then boot up and begin firing its Hall thruster, or ion engine. The engines will shoot out krypton gas ions to slowly yet very efficiently fly from 273 miles (440 kilometers) to 342 miles (550 kilometers) above Earth.
From there, SpaceX plans to test its Starlink internet concept by talking to the Starlink spacecraft from ground stations and routing data from one satellite to another.
What’s in store for Starlink
In the future, each Starlink satellite would link to four others via laser beams, allowing the Starlink network to move internet traffic at close to the speed of light in a vacuum. That’s nearly 50% faster than fiber-optic cables can transmit data on the ground, meaning Starlink could have a tremendous speed advantage.
Musk said SpaceX had “sufficient capital” to get Starlink operational and suggested that SpaceX could start making money off Starlink before it finishes launching all 12,000 planned satellites by 2027, the deadline that Federal Communications Commission licenses require.
“For the system to be economically viable, it’s really on the order of 1,000 satellites,” Musk said, “which is obviously a lot of satellites, but it’s way less than 10,000 or 12,000.”
The pervasiveness of the overhead satellites also means Starlink could bring almost lag-free broadband internet to most regions of Earth, as well as airplanes, ships, and even cars (perhaps Tesla electric vehicles to start). Musk has said multiple times that he’d like to make such internet access affordable, particularly in areas with little to no web service.
Mark Handley, a computer-networking researcher at University College London who has studied Starlink, previously told Business Insider that the project could affect the lives of “potentially everybody” by bringing high-speed and pervasive broadband to most parts of the world.
“This is the most exciting new network we’ve seen in a long time,” Handley said.
Watch the first Starlink mission live
Musk said SpaceX would begin deploying the 60 Starlink satellites about an hour after the launch.
You can tune into SpaceX’s live broadcast below starting about 15 minutes before liftoff, which is scheduled for sometime between 10:30 and midnight ET.