July 1, 2019
Ryan Whitwam

SpaceX Lost Contact With 3 Starlink Satellites

SpaceX launched its first full batch of Starlink internet satellites in May aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. These spacecraft will eventually become part of a massive swarm that beams broadband data down to the masses, but the reliability of SpaceX’s hardware isn’t perfect just yet. The company reports that three of the 60 satellites have already gone offline

Losing three satellites in a matter of weeks doesn’t sound great, and indeed, it would be preferable if none of them failed. However, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk used a classic “underpromise and overdeliver” maneuver prior to launch. He noted that the Starlink satellites are using a lot of new technology, and it was possible none of them would work. Of course, that was a stretch — SpaceX isn’t going to launch 60 satellites if it isn’t confident they’ll work. Still, this makes losing three satellites seem like a victory. 

SpaceX says that the three defective satellites made contact with the ground after deployment, but have since gone dark. The design and orbital position mean these objects won’t orbit the globe indefinitely. SpaceX lowered the target orbit from 1,150 kilometers to just 550 kilometers before launch, so the dead satellites should fall into the atmosphere within five years. 

They will eventually de-orbit naturally and break up in the atmosphere, so Starlink won’t add to the space junk problem. SpaceX will also intentionally de-orbit two of the working satellites to test the design’s ability to propulsively de-orbit. SpaceX says that 45 of the 60 Starlink satellites have reached their target altitudes, and five more are in the process of increasing their altitude. Another five satellites are undergoing system checks before heading to a higher orbit. 

Traditional satellite internet could have latency that’s many times higher than terrestrial wired broadband, but SpaceX hopes to avoid that with more satellites at lower orbits. It has gotten approval to launch about 12,000 satellites operating in the Ku-band. Of these, 7,518 satellites will sit in very-low earth orbit (VLEO), while the rest sit in a standard non-geosynchronous low Earth orbit. SpaceX promises as little as 15ms of lag on Starlink. The company will start beaming signals between Earth and the satellites to test that assertion. Early access to Starlink could begin with 420 satellites in orbit, but it will take double that many for what SpaceX calls “significant coverage.”

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