Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX’s vision is to make humans multi-planetary. His goal is to establish a colony on Mars.
It will not only be very difficult, it will also be expensive.
The plan is to make as much of each ship reusable as possible but since the retirement of the Space Shuttle, most rockets have been single-use.
SpaceX and Blue Origin pioneered rockets that land vertically and SpaceX needed 20 launches before attempting and successfully landing the Falcon 9 rocket back at the launch site in December 2015. There were eight successful launches with five successful landings in 2016. 2017 had 18 launches with all intended recoveries being successful.
In 2018, there were 21 launches including the first Falcon Heavy that launched Musk’s Tesla with just two planned recoveries failing.
By 2019, it was the exception rather than the rule for a reused rocket to return safely. SpaceX was now looking beyond the Falcon and Falcon Heavy rockets to the new Starship.
Starship is to be the containership of spacecraft, capable of lifting more payload and be used to shuttle humans and start the development of the ships that would finally travel to Mars.
While commercial satellite launches provided the funding for SpaceX development, the demand was not enough to fund the ambitious Mars project. In 2015 SpaceX announced their plans to build a constellation of satellites to provide high-speed low-latency internet access to most of the inhabited world.
I've said I want to die on Mars, just not on impact.— 2013 SXSW interview with Chris Anderson
It was not the first global data constellation, but the cost of the satellites, the cost of launching them and finding and servicing customers has resulted in many of the early entrants failing. OneWeb is a smaller network planning 641 satellites that will focus on a smaller group of large customers like maritime, aviation and government contracts starting in 2021. Satellite offers aircraft and ships reliable access almost anywhere.
There is also a case for global trade markets to ensure they have a satellite connection should the undersea cable links fail or be attacked. The risk is lower now that there multiple cables spanning the globe.
Starlink is looking to supercharge that. Reduced cost for the satellites and the lowest launch cost makes Starlink an ambitious project that has permission to launch over 7 000 satellites which could rise to as many as 40 000.
The most recent launch added another 60 making the total active now over 300. There are 17 launches planned for this year which will add over 1 000 satellites. It is also expected that the first packages will go on sale for clients in the US and Canada.
Elon Musk tested it with a tweet in October last year and a speed test to an Air force plane in the same month measured a speed of over 600 megabits per second. Most consumer fibre packages in SA are under 200 megabits per second and it would be comparable to typical commercial packages. Prices are not known but to be competitive it would be in the range of $80 in the US and so possibly about R1500 for an uncapped high-speed link.
According to their website, the rollout after the US this year should be for global access by the end of 2021.
The business case was that the system would take about $10 billion to build, according to Musk he believes it could generate over $30 billion in revenue. Combined with income from satellite launches and crew and supply missions to the International Space Station should help bankroll the increased research, building and testing needed to ensure Musk can make it to Mars before he is too old.
Sending this tweet through space via Starlink satellite 🛰— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 22, 2019
At a conference in early March 2020, he was not optimistic that the pace of innovation was enough to get him there in time.
It is not only his Mars hopes that could be at risk.
Cheap satellites and launches will not guarantee that the new business will work.
Looking at his other companies like Tesla and Solar City suggests that scaling the business to cater for potentially millions of customers will not be easy.
Both products are still focussed on supplying the US market, his Starlink business will need to be global. The first challenge is that it works best outside of urban areas as each satellite would cover about 500 square kilometres and would not be able to handle hundreds of thousands of customers in a small area. To target, rural areas would require base stations to be shipped over a wide area and for sales to effectively only be online. Servicing clients who might need to ship a faulty product back or struggle to initially set it up might see enthusiasts turn quickly into critics. Support staff will need to deal with a wide variety of customers many with limited technical skills. Scams offering fraudulent packages are likely.
To sell and support markets beyond the US and especially in emerging markets may require significant plans to handle billing and shipping. Musk indicated that SpaceX would not look to list Starlink as a separate or public company but it may need to if regulations that require SpaceX to only employee American employees proves difficult when expanding beyond the US.
Assuming the business can address the issues on the ground they will still have some challenges with maintaining their hardware in the sky. The satellites will be able to avoid collisions and reset their orbit over time. Should they fail and not be repairable remotely, they can be deorbited to burn up with little likely to make it back to the surface.
Who do you think might be able to supply this?— 702 (@Radio702) March 11, 2020
The system relies on high powered lasers to transmit traffic between satellites before beaming it back down to earth and they operate in an area of space that is relatively empty between 500 km and 1000 km, The International Space Station is about 400 km up.
Astronomers have raised concerns that the satellite solar panels reflecting the sun will affect their attempts to take pictures and correctly observe the night sky. Musk has acknowledged the potential but does not believe it will be an issue. It appears most of the trouble occurs as the satellites move into their orbits.
A network that large may be a target for some nations or groups that would like to hijack traffic or use it for their own purposes. While it is more in the realm of a James Bond plot, the future of conflict and potential terrorism might increasingly be to celestial targets.
Competition to enter the same market would be low for now, but as both satellites and launches get cheaper we can expect others to offer their own networks. China is building an additional network at low Earth orbit (LEO) altitudes to supplement their own networks and to better cover rural areas.
Musk when asked about what success would look like for Starlink simply said that it need only avoid bankruptcy to be considered a success.
Image credit: Starlink