PARIS — SpaceX has firmly denied a wide-spread industry rumor — which has circulated among companies that are not SpaceX competitors — that the two satellites launched in February to test SpaceX’s future broadband constellation have failed in orbit.
The rumors have accelerated in the past two months following what appears to have been a series of layoffs at SpaceX’s satellite design facility outside Seattle. The layoffs, which occurred around July, have fueled speculation that SpaceX may be backing off the global broadband project, called Starlink.
Given Starlink’s scale, cost and regulatory deadlines, this would normally be a time of ramping up, not ramping down, a manufacturing plant’s visible activity.
Satellite tracking services suggest the two test satellites, called Microsat-2a and Microsat-2b — and named Tintin A and Tintin B at SpaceX — are in a 507-kilometer orbit, not the 1,150-kilometer location that SpaceX has registered as the operation altitude for its full Starlink constellation.
National and international frequency regulators require companies licensed to use radio spectrum to notify regulators when they have reached “bringing into use” status, which means broadcasting in their licensed frequencies for at least 90 days.
SpaceX did not directly address that issue when presented with a series of questions about the two satellites, but did issue the following statement on Sept. 27:
“SpaceX’s demonstration satellites were delivered to their intended orbit, communicated with ground stations, continue to communicate with ground stations, and remain in operation today. Any claims to the contrary are inaccurate.”
In addition to this statement, SpaceX in late July asked the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for approval to extend the two satellites’ test period, and the company has been pitching Starlink to prospective U.S. government customers. Such a request would be incomprehensible if the satellites had ceased functioning.
SpaceX in March received FCC authorization to launch the company’s Starlink constellation of 4,425 satellites into a 1,150-kilometer orbit.
The FCC said SpaceX, like the other satellite constellations seeking licenses, would need to launch half the constellation within six years of the license, and all 4,425 within nine years: https://bit.ly/2IicVId
The cost of this system has been loosely estimated at up to $10 billion, but no reliable estimates can be made until SpaceX freezes the design and begins production.
The FCC has not yet ruled on SpaceX’s secondary constellation of 7,500 satellites in 345.6-kilometer orbit, broadcasting in V-band.
Starlink has always been a mystery to the rest of the satellite sector. The usual measures to determine project status — contracts with component builders, negotiations with launch providers, fundraising milestones, strategic or financial partnerships — are unavailable here.
SpaceX has said it will build the satellites pretty much by itself, launch them aboard the company’s own Falcon rockets and self-fund development.
In stark contrast to every other satellite broadband project that’s past the initial planning stage, SpaceX does not send Starlink engineers to talk about the constellation at telecom or industry conferences.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk has often referred to the project as an important source of financing for the company’s highest priority — launching people to Mars.
SpaceX announced on Sept. 17 that a Japanese billionaire would be aboard the first of SpaceX’s next-generation rocket, called BFR, that would be traveling around the Moon.
At that ceremony, Musk said the lunar flyby would occur in 2023. Musk followers have long since learned to take his estimates of dates and cost with a dose of skepticism. But given SpaceX’s status as a private company, Musk’s tweets and occasional pronouncements are about the only metric outsiders can use to assess progress.
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell has made clear that the Starlink venture will be difficult and expensive, but she has also suggested that the project is on the periphery of her attention.
Industry officials familiar with SpaceX’s Redmond, Washington, operations have confirmed that one of the facilities appears to have emptied out. But one official who lives in the vicinity said another building, devoted to manufacturing, is now seeing more activity.
At his BFR lunar briefing Sept. 17, Musk said the BFR vehicle’s development would cost several billion dollars. But the nonchalance of its estimate — “on the order of $5 billion…. I don’t think it’s more than 10 and I don’t think it’s less than two” raised questions about whether SpaceX had yet made a serious capex estimate.
“Funding BFR is definitely a key question,” he said, saying SpaceX revenue from launching satellites and sending crew and cargo to the International Space Station for NASA will generate some of the needed financing. “We’ve got the Starlink global broadband system that we’re developing, which will also be a key source of revenue.”
Servicing its current launch customers at a time when the market for geostationary-orbit satellites is in a multi-year slump and SpaceX is readying the launch of astronauts for NASA and building BFR is already a lot on the company’s plate.
Musk listed the company’s priorities: “the NASA crewed missions, our satellite customers — those are our current priorities. Once we are confident that this is taken care of, then we will ramp up BFR big-time and get the Starlink system active. Hopefully that does the trick.”
As difficult as it is to imagine how SpaceX will launch more than 2,000 385-kilogram satellites within five and one-half years — assuming it can fund it — it is even more difficult to see how Starlink will generate much revenue to pay for BFR development in time for a 2023 BFR launch with a crew.