SpaceX Starlink success kicks off Elon Musk's satellite internet aspirations

A landmark launch and deploy puts the first 60 satellites into orbit, beginning the master plan of delivering internet to the world.

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Jackson Ryan was CNET's science editor, and a multiple award-winning one at that. Earlier, he'd been a scientist, but he realized he wasn't very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Science writing, he realized, was the best job in the world -- it let him tell stories about space, the planet, climate change and the people working at the frontiers of human knowledge. He also owns a lot of ugly Christmas sweaters.
Jackson Ryan
3 min read

Rockets, man.


SpaceX has officially entered the satellite broadband race, delivering 60 Starlink satellites to orbit via a Falcon 9 rocket. The workhorse rocket achieved liftoff at 7:30 p.m. PT Thursday from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Originally scheduled for last week, the first Starlink delivery was scrubbed twice, once due to bad weather and a second time to "maximize mission success." After those hurdles were cleared, Falcon 9 blasted off from the dark Florida coast and headed to space with a typically dazzling ascent. 

Watch this: SpaceX launches first batch of Starlink satellites

The Falcon 9 booster landed on the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You stationed in the Atlantic Ocean, after being used in two previous SpaceX launches. 

An achievement, sure, but for the company's global internet aspirations, the deployment of 60 Starlink satellites to orbit is the far bigger story.

Starlink aims to provide satellite broadband to customers around the globe. Eventually, the service will form a net of satellites around the Earth, featuring some 12,000 space robots in a constellation that leaves no corner of the planet without internet. At approximately 8:32 p.m. PT, the first 60 of these satellites were released from the payload bay of the Falcon 9, more than 270 miles (440 kilometers) above Earth. Small boosters will see the satellites push out to an orbit of 342 miles.

The satellites, which look like flat-panel TVs, drifted out of the payload bay at once. There are no deployment mechanisms on board, and so the pack of 60 slowly floated apart like a deck of cards spilling out of a hand. Each satellite weighs 500 pounds and contains a single solar array, tiny thrusters, a navigation system that allows SpaceX to find them in orbit and a handful of high-throughput antennas, so they can flick signals around. The single solar array design is to minimize the potential points of failure, and in orbit, the array folds out like an accordion. 

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted Thursday evening that all 60 satellites are online and the ion thrusters would activate sometime in the early hours of Friday. 

And away they go...


Six more launches are required before Starlink will be fully operational, but this first launch provides SpaceX with a chance to test the performance of the constellation. During a press event on May 15, Musk said "there is a lot of new technology, so it's possible that some of these satellites may not work" and suggested there's a "small possibility that all of these satellites will not work." 

Fingers crossed, then.

Musk's SpaceX isn't the only company trying to launch a megaconstellation of internet-providing satellites. OneWeb, which is backed by Richard Branson's Virgin and Qualcomm, launched its first six satellites on Feb. 27, off the back of Arianespace's Russian Soyuz-2. OneWeb has yet to launch a second batch of satellites but will eventually be flying elements of its constellation to orbit every 21 days. It'll be partnering both with Virgin Orbit and Jeff Bezos ' Blue Origin to get the satellites into space. 

Similarly, Bezos, CEO of Amazon , has said his company is also looking to get into the satellite broadband game. On April 4, it announced its satellite constellation, Project Kuiper, though the specifics and expected launch dates are currently unknown.

Meet the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, the world's most powerful rocket

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First published May 23 at 8:37 p.m. PT.
Update, 9:40 p.m.: Adds details.