SpaceX launched yet another batch of Starlink internet satellites atop a Falcon 9 this week, moving the company tantalizingly close to firing up the network for a limited beta test. CEO Elon Musk has provided a few details about what such a test would look like, but SpaceX still only has a fraction of its planned Starlink constellation in orbit. The early tests will be limited, but it’s only a matter of time before the sky is crawling with Starlink nodes.
The first Starlink launch happened less than a year ago, successfully delivering 60 prototype v0.9 satellites into orbit. Some of that first batch stopped working, but most remain alive. Over the course of five subsequent launches, SpaceX deployed the final Starlink v1.0 satellites. Accounting for the failures, SpaceX now has about 415 satellites in orbit, making it the largest single satellite operator in the world.
Starlink will eventually include about 40,000 individual satellites, but Elon Musk previously said it would take between 400 and 800 satellites to bring the network online in a limited geographic area. Musk has talked a lot about how Starlink could bring connectivity to places with limited access, but it could be of use even in places where you can get other types of service. The approach of using large numbers of satellites, some of which are in very low orbits, could alleviate the lag issues that have made traditional satellite internet so unreliable.
Private beta begins in ~3 months, public beta in ~6 months, starting with high latitudes
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 23, 2020
Replying to a Twitter post, Musk said that the first private beta test could start in about three months. That could progress to a public beta test in six months. Because of the relatively small number of satellites, the tests will focus on higher latitudes. We know Starlink already works at least to some degree — Musk posted a tweet from the Starlink network several months ago. We don’t know, however, if it will be fast enough for things like Netflix streaming and video conferencing, both of which have become essential in the post-coronavirus world.
SpaceX has already asked for FCC authorization to deploy as many as one million satellite uplinks on the ground. That will be required for anyone who wants to use the Starlink network. SpaceX hasn’t provided any details on installation or availability for those devices, but Musk will probably talk about the plan on Twitter at some point. He always does.
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