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Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet service now has about 90k users worldwide

During a call with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) officials last month, SpaceX revealed that its satellite internet service, Starlink, now has about 90,000 users across 12 countries worldwide. This suggests that SpaceX was able to add about 20,000 new Starlink users in the past month alone. 

Elon Musk lightly remarked in late June on Twitter that Starlink was able to pass the “strategically important” threshold of 69,420 active users. The statement was meme-worthy, but it underlined just how fast the growth of Starlink’s user base was, especially considering that the system only had about 10,000 active users in February 2021. 

While the update on its current user base is impressive, SpaceX also gave the FCC an overview of the “next-generation” Starlink satellites that it plans to launch in the near future. The updated Starlink satellites would be a step up from their predecessors, boasting faster speeds, lower latency, and more backhaul capacity. This should allow the system to provide internet service to more users across the globe. 

SpaceX also highlighted that it plans to use its next-generation spacecraft for its Starlink launches in the future. To date, the company has been launching batches of 60 Starlink satellites using its tried and tested workhorse, the Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX’s leadership, however, has stated that the company would be using Starship to launch Starlink satellites in the future. Utilizing Starship could pave the way for batches of up to 400 satellites to be sent to orbit in one launch. 

With Starship still being in development, however, Starlink launches in the near term would likely still be accomplished using Falcon 9 rockets. It should be noted that Starlink is already the world’s most extensive satellite constellation to date, with over 1,700 satellites in orbit. 

Starlink is a capital-intensive project, but it could serve as a pillar of SpaceX’s business in the future. By providing web access to places that are typically out of reach by conventional internet systems, Starlink could effectively help connect the world and disrupt the ISP industry. Consumer interest seems notable, especially as SpaceX has noted that it has received over half a million pre-orders for the satellite internet system worldwide. 

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SpaceX schedules first West Coast Starlink launch after a quiet July

Spaceflight Now reports that SpaceX has scheduled Starlink’s West Coast launch debut no earlier than August 10th, a mission that will also mark the company’s first launch in almost six weeks.

SpaceX completed its latest Falcon 9 launch – and 20th launch of 2021 – on June 30th, successfully deploying dozens of customer small satellites and three Starlink spacecraft as part of its second dedicated Smallsat Program ‘Transporter’ mission. Since then, the United States’ Eastern Range has been eerily quiet – as if in the eye of the storm that is SpaceX’s 2021 launch manifest. While there has been no official word one way or another, it’s been speculated that the range entered a period of routine – if inconvenient – maintenance that can often last weeks and during which no launches are possible.

Scheduled to launch no earlier than July 30th, Boeing’s second attempt at an uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT-2) of its Starliner crew capsule will apparently punctuate the end of that maintenance period and a return to regular operations for SpaceX. In the meantime, Spaceflight Now’s sources suggest that the company has been making the most of its downtime.

In the last two months, SpaceX has shipped two record-breaking Falcon 9 boosters – collectively responsible for 19 orbital-class launches in the last three years – from Florida to its Vandenberg Air/Space Force Base (VAFB), California launch facilities. Drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) wrapped up an 8000 kilometer (~5000 mi) journey from its Florida home to California’s Port of Long Beach, while brand new drone ship A Shortfall of Gravitas (ASOG) arrived at Port Canaveral to take OCISLY’s place after months of assembly.

All are part of an effort to prepare for an even busier second half of 2021. According to Spaceflight Now, H2 will begin no earlier than August 10th for SpaceX with Starlink’s first dedicated polar launch (known as “Starlink 2-1”) and the first Falcon 9 mission out of Vandenberg in nine months. Combined, Falcon 9 boosters B1049 and B1051 and drone ship OCISLY should be more than capable of pushing SpaceX’s SLC-4E pad to its limits, maxing out around one launch per month for the foreseeable future.

Last month, SpaceX FCC filings also revealed plans for a number of new dedicated Starlink launches from its Cape Canaveral LC-40 pad – unexceptional if it weren’t for the fact that details in the documents implied that those upcoming missions will also be targeting polar orbits. In other words, after successfully launching more than 1600 operational Starlink satellites into mid-inclination equatorial orbits, SpaceX now appears to be laser-focused on building out the constellation’s polar ‘shell.’

Comprised of ~1100 satellites, that polar shell will ultimately give Starlink the ability to deliver internet to aircraft and ships virtually anywhere on Earth – two established connectivity markets that are ripe for disruption. To do so, however, most or all polar Starlink satellites will need optical interlinks – lasers that allow spacecraft to route communications in space and serve customers beyond the reach of land-based ground stations. Thus far, excluding two early 2018 prototypes, SpaceX has launched 13 Starlink satellites with prototype laser links.

SpaceX’s first ten space laser Starlink prototypes. (SpaceX)

CEO Elon Musk has stated that Starlink V2 satellites are set to debut in 2022 and will all have optical interlinks. However, the upcoming “Starlink 2-1” mission’s internal name does raise the question of whether it’s referring to the start of a new constellation ‘shell,’ the first batch of V2 satellites, or both. SpaceX job postings have also hinted at “Starlink V1.5” satellites, which could potentially be as simple as existing V1 satellites outfitted with laser links.

Ultimately, only time, SpaceX, or Elon Musk will tell and the company’s first dedicated Starlink launch is scheduled as few as two weeks from now.

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SpaceX drone ship completes 5000-mile journey from Florida to California

A bit less than four weeks after departing Central Florida’s Port Canaveral, SpaceX drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) has completed a more than 5000-mile (~8000 km) journey to Port of Long Beach, California.

Around midnight on June 10th, the oldest operational ‘autonomous spaceport drone ship’ (ASDS) was towed out of the closest port to Cape Canaveral, where two SpaceX-leased pads support the vast majority of all Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches. Around 12 months before OCISLY’s departure, drone ship Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) joined it on the East Coast with its first Atlantic Ocean booster recovery some ten months after the opposite journey – California to Florida.

Thanks in no small part to the presence of two operational drone ships stationed in Port Canaveral, SpaceX completed 32 successful East Coast launches and recovered 31 boosters at sea in those 12 months. However, at least as early as April 2021, plans were already in motion to send one of those two drone ships west.

Likely because it’s the most aging member of SpaceX’s booster recovery fleet, drone ship OCISLY was chosen to head to California and support the start of a few dozen dedicated polar Starlink launches. Thanks to limitations with SpaceX’s even older Vandenberg Air/Space Force Base (VAFB) SLC-4E launch facilities, it’s unlikely that the drone ship will ever need support more than one booster recovery per month, compared to two or even three per month operating out of Port Canaveral.

VAFB Space Launch Complex 4, November 2020. (SpaceX)

While SpaceX’s East Coast launch operation now has just one drone ship to work with, that might not be the case for long. Late last month, a tugboat frequently used by SpaceX to tow drone ships OCISLY and JRTI departed Port Canaveral and arrived at Port Fourchon, Louisiana on June 27th. Finn Falgout will ultimately tow brand new drone ship A Shortfall of Gravitas (ASOG) – currently in the late stages of assembly at a Fourchon shipyard – to its new home in Port Canaveral, restoring SpaceX’s East Coast booster recovery fleet to two ships.

ASOG’s trip east could happen at any point this month, albeit only after several days to a week of sea trials expected before the shipyard hands off the vessel to SpaceX. At the moment, no East Coast launches of any kind appear to have been scheduled in the first half of July, hinting at unavoidable downtime either for SpaceX alone or the entire Eastern Range. In other words, ASOG could arrive in time to avoid any direct impact on launch cadence that a single drone ship might have.

Still installed on the deck of transport ship Mighty Servant 1 (MS1), OCISLY will likely be offloaded – weather pending – later this week, after which SpaceX will be able to start the process of getting the drone ship ready for its first West Coast rocket recovery mission. That will likely take at least a week or two, potentially leaving OCISLY ready to support SpaceX’s first dedicated polar Starlink launch as early as late July. Simultaneously, it’s not inconceivable that drone ship ASOG will also be ready for its own rocket recovery debut around the same time, meaning that SpaceX could have three operational drone ships for the first time by next month.

Given SpaceX’s plans to quickly ramp up its VAFB facilities to support one launch per month and the impressive success of its East Coast pads in H1 2021, the company could feasibly complete another 21 or 22 launches between August and December.

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SpaceX says Starship can beat ‘plasma blackout’ with Starlink antennas

SpaceX has asked the FCC to allow Starship and its Super Heavy booster to communicate with Starlink during the rocket’s first orbital launch attempt.

Filed on June 28th, SpaceX’s Special Temporary Authority (STA) application contains a number of surprising details about the company’s plans to expand the experimental use of its Starlink satellite constellation to communicate with rockets in flight. That effort was first made public in April 2021 when a separate FCC application revealed plans to test Starlink on a Starship prototype. Starship serial number 15 (now known as Ship 15 or S15).

That particular prototype became the first of its kind to successfully launch and land in one piece on May 5th. Nothing is known about whether Starlink was actually used or how the Starship’s lone dish performed during the 10 kilometer (6.2 mi) flight test, but SpaceX’s plans to again combine both two Star– programs do offer some new lines to read between.

Most notably, relative to its first Starlink-Starship STA application, SpaceX splits no hairs in the ‘narrative’ attached to its latest request. Specifically, SpaceX repeatedly discusses the potential for Starlink to drastically improve the state of the art of routine spacecraft and launch vehicle telemetry and communications.

“SpaceX intends demonstrate high data rate communications with Starship and the Super Heavy Booster on the ground at the launch site in Starbase, TX during launch, during booster recovery, in flight, and during reentry. Starlink can provide unprecedented volumes of telemetry and enable communications during atmospheric reentry when ionized plasma around the spacecraft inhibits conventional telemetry frequencies. These tests will demonstrate Starlink’s ability to improve the efficiency and safety of future orbital spaceflight missions.

SpaceX — June 28th, 2021

In short, in the two months since SpaceX first requested permission “to operate a single user terminal…during flight tests,” the company appears to have become extremely bullish about Starlink’s potential as a solution for rocket communications. The logical conclusion is that Starlink performed well during its trials aboard Starship S15 on the ground and in flight – possibly even exceeding SpaceX’s own expectations. Simultaneously, SpaceX is in the midst of expanding efforts to certify Starlink for aviation communications and has been generally ramping up tests on aircraft, ships, and road vehicles.

Indeed, at least in theory, the same attributes that allow Starlink to blow traditional consumer satellite communications solutions out of the water could make Starlink a boon for launch vehicle communications. That’s especially true for the test flights of experimental launch vehicles like Starship, where failure is an inevitable part of the development process. However, those launch failures are only beneficial insofar as they expand the knowledge base and allow lessons to be learned.

Falcon 9’s main telemetry antenna is visible on the booster’s interstage. (Richard Angle/BocaChicaGal)

Data, in other words, is essential, and the more data recovered from test flights, the better. Even on modern rockets, state-of-the-art telemetry usually involves maximum bandwidth on the order of a few hundred to a few thousand kilobits per second, often requiring software and compression gymnastics and uncomfortable triage to ensure that all necessary telemetry keeps flowing.

If Starlink could expand that bandwidth from a few megabits per second (Mbps) to dozens or even hundreds of Mbps, SpaceX could extract unprecedentedly widespread and high-resolution telemetry from Starship and Super Heavy during their first orbital test flight, leaving a wealth of data for likely post-flight failure analyses.

A Starship enters the Martian atmosphere in this artist’s impression. (SpaceX)

Perhaps most surprising is SpaceX’s claim that Starlink antennas could allow Starship to maintain a strong communications link throughout orbital reentry. Traditionally, all spacecraft capable of reentry produce a superheated sheath of plasma as they careen into Earth’s upper atmosphere. That plasma effectively blocks most radio waves, creating an inevitable several-minute communications ‘blackout’ for any reentering spacecraft.

If Starlink can somehow allow SpaceX to break through that ‘plasma barrier,’ it would give the company an unprecedented capability invaluable for the process of perfecting orbital Starship reentry, descent, and landing – a process Musk expects to involve several unsuccessful attempts. According to SpaceX’s FCC application, Starship’s first orbital launch and reentry attempt could occur as early as August 2021.

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SpaceX adds batch of polar Starlink satellites to rideshare launch

Orbit details shared by SpaceX suggest that the company’s second dedicated Smallsat Rideshare launch – known as Transporter-2 – will also carry a second batch of polar Starlink satellites.

SpaceX launched the first batch of ten polar Starlink satellites in January 2021 as part of Transporter-1, co-manifesting them alongside a record-breaking 133 other spacecraft for a variety of companies and institutions. The mission was ultimately a major success, breaking records and demonstrating that SpaceX is serious about its Smallsat Program. Much like company executives promised in 2019 and 2020, SpaceX really does appear to have firm plans for semi-regular rideshare missions that will give customers two or more launch windows per year.

Now scheduled to launch no earlier than 2:56 pm EDT (16:56 EDT) on Tuesday, June 29th, Transporter-2 is the second in a series of Falcon 9 rideshare launches currently scheduled every six months or less over the next several years.

While Transporter-2 wont beat the unprecedented number of satellites launched on on Transporter-1, SpaceX says it will still “launch 88 spacecraft to orbit” and – more importantly – carry more customer mass. In other words, Transporter-2 will carry roughly 50% fewer satellites, each of which will weigh substantially more on average.

Ordering directly through SpaceX, Smallsat Rideshare Program begins at $1 million for up to 200 kg (~440 lb) to Sun Synchronous Orbit (SSO; around 500 km or 300 mi). A majority of small satellites weigh significantly less than 200 kilograms but if a customer manages to use all of their allotment, the total cost of a SpaceX rideshare launch could be as low as $5000 per kilogram – incredibly cheap relative to almost any other option. For a dedicated launch to SSO on a Rocket Lab Electron or Astra Rocket 3.0 rocket using every last gram of available performance, the same customer would end up paying a minimum of $25,000 to $37,500 per kilogram to orbit.

Befitting the premium price tag, a dedicated launch on one of a growing number of small orbital-class rockets does carry benefits like direct orbit insertion, specialized payload handling, and more schedule control. A rideshare with dozens of other satellites is more akin to taking a bus, delivering the lowest prices possible at the cost of strict departure times and a one-size-fits-all approach to drop-offs.

An artist rendering of Transporter-2 payload deployment. (Exolaunch)

Given that SpaceX’s Transporter program is on track to orbit more than twice as many satellites in six months as Rocket Lab’s small Electron rocket has launched on 17 successful missions spread over more than three years, it’s safe to say that a large portion of prospective smallsat owners and builders have concluded that the cost savings provided by rideshares far outweigh the inconvenience.

Beyond Transporter-2, SpaceX is already working to launch Transporter-3 in December 2021, Transporter-4 as soon as March 2022, Transporter-5 in June 2022, Transporter-6 in October 2022, and at least three other dedicated rideshare launches tentatively scheduled in 2023.

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SpaceX Falcon 9 booster fleet assembles for West Coast Starlink launches

For the second time in a month, SpaceX has shipped a heavily flown Falcon 9 booster from Cape Canaveral, Florida to its West Coast launch facilities.

Falcon 9 booster B1051’s June 24th arrival at Vandenberg Air/Space Force Base (VAFB) is perhaps the best sign yet that SpaceX means to almost immediately reach – and sustain – an orbital launch cadence not seen on the West Coast in decades. Just four weeks prior to B1051’s second appearance at the California launch range, B1049 became the first Falcon 9 booster to arrive at Vandenberg in more than half a year.

B1051’s arrival means that SpaceX now has two Falcon 9 boosters on hand to support dedicated polar Starlink launches out of Vandenberg – launches that could begin as early as next month. First teased by SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell in April, preparations for that July launch target have been well underway for months. Several major pieces have fallen into place in rapid succession at the same time.

A few weeks after Shotwell’s comments, SpaceX signed a lease for new dock space and rocket processing facilities and moved its years-old West Coast recovery operations from Port of Los Angeles to adjacent Port of Long Beach facilities soon after. Around May 27th, Falcon 9 booster B1049 was trucked into VAFB.

On June 10th, drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) began a more than 5000-mile (~8000 km) journey from Port Canaveral, Florida to Port of Long Beach, California, where it would eventually recover boosters hundreds of miles downrange after dedicated polar Starlink launches. After waiting for several days in a nearby harbor, the massive SpaceX recovery platform was carried through the Panama Canal on the back of an even larger transport ship on June 25th and is now en route to California – ETA: July 6th.

Falcon 9 B1049, May 9th. (Richard Angle)
Falcon 9 B1051, May 12th. (Richard Angle)

Once OCISLY arrives, the only real uncertainties left will be readying the drone ship for recovery operations after a long journey and ensuring that SpaceX’s VAFB SLC-4E launch pad is ready to go after six months of inactivity. That leaves Falcon 9 second stage, payload fairing, and satellite testing, delivery, and integration – a routine process for SpaceX after 30 successful Starlink launches.

With both Falcon 9 boosters B1049 and B1051 at hand, SpaceX will feasibly be able to push SLC-4E to its design limits with monthly Starlink launches. Having respectively achieved record turnarounds of 61 and 38 days between flights, SpaceX’s West Coast Starlink launch campaign is unlikely to suffer from a lack of booster availability anytime soon.

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SpaceX drone ship sails through Panama Canal on the way to California

For the third time ever, one of SpaceX’s “autonomous spaceport drone ships” has successfully transited the Panama Canal on its way to a new home port.

This time around, similar to drone ship Just Read The Instructions’ (JRTI) original 2015 journey from a Louisiana shipyard to Port of Los Angeles, drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) headed west through the Panama Canal on June 25th, 2021. Unlikely JRTI, though, OCISLY was already operational and had supported almost four dozen successful Falcon booster landings before SpaceX decided to move the storied drone ship from Port Canaveral, Florida to Port of Long Beach, California.

A bit less than four years after Just Read The Instructions debuted on the West Coast, SpaceX sent the drone ship back east in August 2019, leaving the company’s Vandenberg Air/Space Force Base (VAFB) launch pad without an at-sea booster recovery capability ever since. Perhaps unsurprisingly, SpaceX has only launched once out of VAFB in the last two years. Now, though, the company intends to restart West Coast launches with a vengeance – and soon.

SpaceX’s primary motivation: a growing need to deliver a large number of Starlink satellites to polar – rather than semi-equatorial – orbits. Just last month, SpaceX’s 28th dedicated Starlink launch carried the constellation past the 1600-satellite milestones for the first time ever. Comprised of a little over 4400 satellites split between five orbital ‘shells,’ that milestone meant that the Starlink constellation’s first phase is now more than a third complete.

It also means that SpaceX has effectively finished the first of those five shells once all ~1584 satellites finish raising their orbits. A second nearly identical shell of 1584 satellites will eventually complete the constellation’s semi-equatorial foundation. In principle, those two shells of ~3200 satellites are enough to serve internet to ~99% of humanity.

Polar satellites will allow SpaceX to truly provide internet anywhere on Earth. Perhaps most importantly, polar Starlink satellites with optical (i.e. laser) interlinks would allow the constellation to serve uninterrupted, high-quality internet to all aircraft and ships – two major connectivity markets currently trapped with solutions that are either offer a terrible user experience or are extraordinarily expensive (and still mediocre).

Once operational on the West Coast, drone ship OCISLY should allow SpaceX to begin fleshing out Starlink’s polar shells with dedicated launches almost immediately. OCISLY is currently on tracked to arrive at Port of Long Beach around July 6th, leaving SpaceX more than three weeks to prepare for a polar Starlink launch before the month is out. Recently, FCC filings have also indicated that SpaceX intends to perform dedicated polar Starlink launches from California and Florida – though the latter missions will take a significant performance hit to make that happen.

According to Musk, Starlink is about six weeks away from achieving uninterrupted global coverage (excluding the poles) and six months away from offering uninterrupted coverage anywhere on Earth. It’s unclear how much of Starlink’s three polar shells will have to be completed before the constellation can truly provide uninterrupted coverage to those living in Earth’s polar regions but it’s likely that achieving that feat in six months will be a challenge.

Accounting for the inherently less efficient nature of polar launches and assuming approximately 50 Starlink satellites per polar launch, SpaceX will likely need to complete 12-20 polar missions to achieve full global coverage. Though unlikely, both of SpaceX’s first dedicated polar Starlink launches from the East and West Coasts could potentially occur in late July or early August.

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SpaceX aiming for July for Starship orbital launch despite regulatory reviews

WASHINGTON — SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell says the company is “shooting for July” for the first orbital launch of the company’s Starship vehicle despite lacking the regulatory approvals needed for such a launch.

Speaking at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference (ISDC) June 25, Shotwell said the company was pressing ahead with plans for an orbital flight involving the Super Heavy booster and Starship upper stage from the company’s Boca Chica, Texas, test site.

“We are headed for our first orbital attempt in the not-too-distant future. We’re shooting for July,” she said. “I am hoping we make it, but we all know this is difficult. We are really on the cusp of flying that system, or at least attempting the first orbital flight of that system, in the very near term.”

SpaceX last flew a Starship prototype May 5, with the SN15 vehicle flying to an altitude of 10 kilometers before making a successful landing, a milestone that had eluded four previous prototypes in tests between December 2020 and March 2021. While SpaceX originally appeared to be planning a second suborbital flight of that vehicle, it instead moved the vehicle from the launch pad. Another Starship prototype, SN16, has remained at the production site.

SpaceX has since turned its attention to preparing for the first orbital test flight. In a filing with the Federal Communications Commission May 13, SpaceX outlined the flight plan for the mission, starting with liftoff off from Boca Chica. The Super Heavy booster would land in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast from Boca Chica, while Starship would go into orbit but reenter after less than one orbit, splashing down 100 kilometers northwest of the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

That license application stated the flight would take place during a six-month period beginning June 20. However, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has not yet issued a launch license for Starship/Super Heavy launches from Boca Chica. The company’s existing license covers only suborbital flights of Starship.

As a part of the licensing process, the FAA is performing an environmental review of launches from Boca Chica. The agency said in November that the original environmental impact statement for the site, prepared in 2014 when SpaceX was contemplating launching Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, was not applicable to the far larger Starship/Super Heavy vehicles. Some environmental groups had criticized allowing SpaceX to launch Starship vehicles from Boca Chica using the original environmental study.

That assessment must be completed before the FAA can issue a license to SpaceX for Starship/Super Heavy flights. The assessment could conclude that such launches would have no significant impact, or that some mitigation measures are needed to allow such launches. It could also conclude that a more detailed environmental impact statement would be required, delaying a decision on the license.

The FAA has not provided an update on the status of the environmental assessment, which would include publication of a draft version for public comment before a final version. It is unlikely that process could be done in time to support a launch in the near future.

Shotwell made no mention of the licensing and environmental review process in her brief comments at ISDC, where she was accepting an award from the organization. Later in her remarks, she said the orbital launch attempt was the next big test for Starship. “I never want to predict dates because we’ll still in development, but very soon,” she said.

Shotwell said she was also “very excited” about the progress on the Starlink program. She said SpaceX will have full global coverage once all the satellites launched to date reach their operational orbits. SpaceX launched the most recent batch of Starlink satellites May 26.

“Roughly six or so weeks from now we will have full global continuous coverage with the Starlink constellation, which should really help people who are un- or under-served to get broadband internet,” she said.


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SpaceX preparing salvo of polar Starlink launches from West and East coasts

SpaceX has unexpectedly filed regulatory documents requesting permission to perform at least half a dozen polar Starlink satellite launches from its East Coast facilities, hinting at a two-pronged approach as work continues to reactive SpaceX’s lone West Coast launch pad.

Known as Space Launch Complex 4 (SLC-4), SpaceX last used its Vandenberg Air/Space Force Base (VAFB) pad to launch a joint primarily European Earth observation satellite in November 2020 – itself the site’s first launch since June 2019. In April 2021, comments made by SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell revealed plans to return its VAFB site to active use as early as “summer” 2021 – July, in other words.

Over the next two months, a new Port of Long Beach lease for West Coast drone ship operations, FCC launch application requests, and the westbound shipment of a Falcon 9 booster strongly supported Shotwell’s claim. Most recently, drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) completed the first leg of its journey from Florida to California, arriving at the Panama Canal’s Atlantic locks on June 20th. That progress has all but guaranteed that SpaceX’s West Coast launch resurgence will have a drone ship to support booster recoveries – pad, rocket, and satellites permitting – well before the end of July.

Now, though, new SpaceX FCC permit applications suggest that the company intends to begin dedicated polar launches from the East Coast as early as July 26th. That means that SpaceX could theoretically complete its first two dedicated polar Starlink launches next month if things go smoothly. Given that SpaceX’s East Coast launch facilities are already active and have been running like a well-oiled machine over the last ~12 months, plans to simultaneously begin polar Starlink launches from the East and West coasts could also serve as a hedge against any delays that might crop up while reactivating SLC-4E.

In the event of delays, SpaceX would thus still have a feasible path to complete its first dedicated polar Starlink launch before the end of the month, potentially leaving it on track to complete around a dozen such missions before the end of the year.

Just last month, Starlink passed a major milestone with SpaceX’s 28th successful launch of v1.0 satellites, effectively completing the constellation’s first orbital ‘shell’ of ~1600 spacecraft. Technically, around 1100 of those satellites are operational and the other ~530 are still in the processing of boosting themselves to their final orbits, but that’s just a matter of time. Once all of spacecraft already in orbit complete that process, the Starlink constellation will be able to deliver uninterrupted internet to almost anybody on Earth.

Another identical semi-equatorial batch of ~1584 satellites is planned to flesh out the Starlink Phase 1 constellation and improve bandwidth density but to achieve true global coverage, another ~1250 polar Starlink satellites are necessary. In Starlink’s first ~4400-satellite phase, those polar-orbiting spacecraft are split between three ‘shells’ with slightly different orbits and inclinations to increase the breadth of their coverage as much as possible. Notably, polar Starlink satellites will offer truly uninterrupted coverage anywhere on Earth – not just land-based users outside of polar latitudes.

SpaceX launched the first ten laser-interlinked polar Starlink satellite prototypes (bottom) in January 2021. It’s unclear if the first dedicated polar launches will also feature satellites with laser interlinks. (SpaceX)

With laser interlinks installed, those polar satellites will also allow Starlink to break into the lucrative in-flight and maritime communications markets and serve unprecedentedly high-quality internet to people in the air and at sea. They’ll also open up Starlink to many of the four million or so people living in the Arctic Circle.

While East Coast polar Starlink launches will be less efficient and likely have to carry fewer satellites, simultaneously flying from the East and West Coast could allow SpaceX to launch the constellation’s ~1250 polar satellites in just 12-18 months while still performing regular equatorial launches at the same time.

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SpaceX drone ship to ride transport vessel through the Panama Canal

After a quick jaunt from Port Canaveral to the Bahamas, SpaceX drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) has been loaded onto the deck of a much larger semi-submersible transport vessel.

Known as Mighty Servant 1 (MS1), it appears that OCISLY will be carried from the Bahamas through the Panama Canal – and possibly all the way to Port of Long Beach, California – on the back of the transport ship. That’s unlike Just Read The Instructions’ (JRTI) 2019 transit from California to Florida, which saw SpaceX remove the drone ship’s deck ‘wings’ for a tow through the Panama Canal’s older, narrower locks.

Perhaps possible because of the use of a transport ship like MS1, it appears that drone ship OCISLY will instead be allowed to transit the Panama Canal’s 55-meter-wide (180 ft) New Panama locks. With a one-time permit, SpaceX can bypass its otherwise strict 51.25m (168 ft) beam (width) limit and squeeze drone ship OCISLY through the canal with just 1-1.5m (3-5 ft) to spare on either side. As a result, SpaceX won’t have to go through the relatively laborious process of cutting off and reinstalling OCISLY’s wings and recertifying the drone ship’s seaworthiness, which can easily take a month or more.

More generally, and especially so for a payload as light as OCISLY, Mighty Servant 1 should also be able to travel significant faster than the drone ship would otherwise be able to under tow. Typically, tugboats tend to tow SpaceX’s drone ships no faster than 9 mph (13 kph). MS1 could easily average 14-15 mph with OCISLY on its deck, conceivably speeding up the 5000 mile (8000 km) journey from a bit less than four weeks to two weeks.

While convenient regardless, a substantially faster canal transit and coast-to-coast journey and the freedom to leave OCISLY almost entirely unchanged will help SpaceX begin dedicated polar Starlink launches from the West Coast as early as July 2021. SpaceX COO and President Gwynne Shotwell first put forth a goal of beginning those launches in “summer” 2021 – technically no earlier than (NET) July 2021. Spaceflight Now later confirmed that dedicated polar Starlink launches were indeed scheduled to begin as early as July.

As of June 2021, SpaceX has already delivered a well-worn Falcon 9 booster from Florida to California and the last major missing piece – a drone ship to support West Coast recovery operations – may now be just a few weeks away from Port of Long Beach. In other words, while seemingly implausible just a few weeks ago, SpaceX now has a very decent chance of launching its first dedicated batch of polar Starlink satellites within the next ~7 weeks. Stay tuned for updates on drone ship OCISLY’s Panama Canal transit aboard Mighty Servant 1.

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