SpaceX becomes the World’s largest commercial satellite operator
The recent launch of 60 Starlink satellites into the orbit was also accompanied by changes to fix previous problems
2019 has been a landmark year for Elon Musk and his flagship companies — Tesla & SpaceX. From dealing with controversies and lawsuits to product launches and expansion plans, Musk was kept busy. His electric vehicle company swung from a loss to a profit as it met year’s delivery guidance with a strong Q4 led by shipments of Model 3 sedans with an upbeat outlook on business in China for 2020.
The unveiling of the Cybertruck, with its futuristic design, was the highlight of the year — for which the company claims to have received 250,000 pre-orders worth approximately $10.5 billion. Tesla’s stock saw massive gains at the end of the year becoming the biggest carmaker in the U.S, by market cap.
Talking about Musk’s more ambitious endeavor SpaceX, it had a lot to celebrate for in 2019. The space exploration company launched the Commercial Crew Program in March 2019 with NASA, which saw the Dragon capsule to become the first American spacecraft to successfully dock with the International Space Station (ISS). It also successfully launched the Falcon Heavy rocket — the most powerful operational rocket in the world with the ability to deliver large payloads.
The aerospace company launched the first batch of satellites earlier in summer 2019, for the company’s Starlink project — an endeavor to provide broadband internet service to the global population by beaming it from the satellites positioned in the low-Earth orbit (LEO). Apart from this, the company continued its extensive testing on its spaceships — Starship & Starhopper — both of which will be eventually used to send people to Moon & Mars. The first mission is planned as soon as 2021.
Coming back to Starlink, SpaceX used its Falcon 9 rocket to deploy two batches of satellites. The company has kicked off the new decade with the launch of 60 more satellites into a 180-mile altitude orbit— bringing the total to more than 180 & also making it the biggest commercial satellite operator. However, the recent deployment consisted of a “darkening treatment” to address the problems identified after the deployment of first two batches.
The critics had originally argued that this kind of massive satellite deployment is going to aggravate the burgeoning space junk problem that we are dealing within the Earth’s orbit. SpaceX defended the action by saying that the satellites will be orbiting in a much lower orbit, keeping them out of range of the current space debris in higher orbit & also easier to retire once they have outlived their usefulness after 5 years.
However, the controversy exacerbated when at least three of the Starlink satellites went offline and one of them almost collided with the European Space Agency’s (ESA) weather satellite. On top of this, astronomers who had strong reservations prior to their launch, of blocking the night sky are now complaining that Starlink constellation was interfering with their observations & could make it impossible to spot something like a killer asteroid.
Above mentioned darkening treatment was part of the endeavor to address these visibility concerns — the company has started coating soon-to-be-deployed satellites in an anti-reflective paint. While it may take some trial & error to figure out the right solution, it is encouraging to see SpaceX trying to address the problem now, rather than trying to fix something after cluttering the sky with thousands of satellites.
SpaceX plans to send a batch of 60 Starlink satellites every two weeks from now on with an eventual target of deploying 12,000 satellites — which can go up to an internet-beaming mega constellation of 42,000 satellites.