SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell. Credit: Euroconsult

WASHINGTON — The mystery that is SpaceX’s Starlink mega-constellation of broadband satellites deepened on May 7 when SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said the company would launch “dozens” of Starlink spacecraft on May 15 aboard a Falcon 9 rocket, but that the satellites would not be fully operational.

Assuming the launch and the satellites’ early operations go smoothly, she said at least two launches of fully operational Starlink satellites would occur later this year, and perhaps as many as six.

SpaceX has said previously that the upcoming launch would be to 550 kilometers, would have stripped-down features compared to the operational constellation.

“I don’t know if we’ve every released it publicly, but let’s call it dozens, dozens of satellites on that launch,” Shotwell said here May 7 at the Satellite 2019 conference. “This next batch of satellites will really be a demonstration for us to see, and start putting our network together. We start launching the satellites for actual service later this year.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we had two to six launches at the end of the year of Starlink… in addition to this one. It depends on how we do with this first batch. think we’ll get at least two more.

Of the satellites themselves, Shotwell said: “They’re capable but there’s no intersatellite links on it. I call them test class satellites. The antennas are pretty hot on these things, they are very capable systems.”

Shotwell did not explain why so many demonstration satellites needed to be launched.

SpaceX’s initial constellation of more than 4,000 satellites was intended to operate from 1,100 to 1,300 kilometers. Those plans had been criticized by startup satellite-broadband constellation operator OneWeb, which complained to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission that the OneWeb and SpaceX satellites would be too close together in orbit, risking collisions.

OneWeb Chief Financial Officer Tom Whayne said here May 6 that SpaceX’s decision to apply for a license in a lower orbit could be seen as a response to OneWeb’s concerns.

Other industry officials had different explanations for SpaceX’s change of plans.

Viasat Chief Executive Mark Dankberg, which operates broadband satellites in geostationary orbit, said the latest Starlink design appears much less capable than its predecessor in terms of capacity, but also is one that can be built and launched more quickly.

“If you look at the [regulatory] filings there are quite a few changes that will substantially reduce the capability of the first generation,” Dankberg said of Starlink’s new design. “So they have greatly relaxed that to meet that schedule. The altitude is lower, I think the EIRP is lower, and in order to get the geographic coverage they have increased the look angles they are going to support. It’s not clear they are going to have cross-links.”

SpaceX told the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on April 17 that it had raised just $44 million of a planned $400 million, a financing round that industry officials said was devoted to Starlink and its revenue potential.

No one from the Starlink program makes public statements about the constellation, leaving industry observers to read employment notices and regulatory filing to glean what they can about the system’s capacity and its owners’ intentions and financial resources.

Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel, appearing on the the same launch-service panel with Shotwell, tried to spark concern in the industry about the fact that SpaceX, a launch-service company, will be the owner of a large constellation of satellites that will compete with the systems operated by SpaceX launch customers.

It’s an issue he has raised before in an attempt to cause customer disengagement from SpaceX as a launch service. Israel conceded after the session that his effort fell flat.

Aware of what Israel was driving at, Shotwell said: “With Boeing and Lockheed it’s been that way for decades. They build satellites, they launch satellites and operate satellites — some commercial and some, probably mostly, for the Department of Defense.”

With the commercial launch market in a prolonged slump, SpaceX’s having an in-house demand for dozens of launchers of Starlink satellites is seen as a real advantage. But Shotwell said the company is not yet suffering as much as would be expected given the lack of commercial satellite orders industry-wide.

“In 2017 we launched 18 times, in 2018 we launched 21 times,” Shotwell said. “This year, depending on customer readiness, we could launch between 18 and 21 times. Next year, 16-20 launches in the manifest. We’ve signed 22 deals since this show last year. So we’re still still seeing pretty strong uptake of our services and then Starlink would be on top of that.”