SpaceX Might Not Need 42,000 Starlink Satellites For Quality Internet Coverage Says President

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell during a TED Talk in 2018. Image: TED

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Space Exploration Technologies Corporation's (SpaceX) president and chief operating officer Ms. Gwynne Shotwell outlined in an interview given earlier this week that her company does not need 42,000 satellites to provide quality global connectivity with its Starlink satellite internet service. SpaceX is currently launching the first generation satellites of its massive constellation that is already the world's largest. These satellites will be augmented by the second generation satellites that it hopes to launch with the Starship next generation vehicle, and Ms. Shotwell's comments were quoted by a French publication after she gave an interview to Le Point. The original interview is behind a paywall, and the executive was quoted by another publication, DataNews.

SpaceX Executive's Comments Come As Company Battles FCC Approval For Second Generation Satellites

Starlink's full constellation which consists of both the first and second generation satellites aims to put 42,000 spacecraft mostly in low Earth orbit (LEO). Right now, the company is deploying the first generation spacecraft and its original plans that were submitted to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in 2019 shared plans to launch another 30,000 spacecraft into orbits ranging from 328 kilometers to 520 kilometers.

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According to her statements quoted by DataNews (translated by Google Translate), Ms. Shotwell stated that 42,000 satellites are not necessary for "quality" global coverage, with the executive stating that:

“We obviously want to launch more satellites, because more and more people want to use the service. . . .I don't think we'll need 42,000 satellites to deliver quality service globally."

While the limited statements do not shed any light on whether drastically reducing the number of satellites will degrade Starlink's coverage, they do highlight that advances that the SpaceX head might have in mind will be sufficient to provide connectivity to most global regions. SpaceX's second generation satellites will be significantly different than the current ones, and they will feature higher data transfer capacity and be larger in size as well.

Ms. Shotwell during her interview with Le Point published yesterday. Image: Le Point/YouTube

SpaceX's quest to launch the 30,000 second generation satellites has been the subject of fierce debate at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) where the company's rivals have raised a host of objections against its plea to launch them with Starship instead of the Falcon 9. Some have argued that the idea of thousands of satellites in orbit is an environmental hazard, with Viasat complaining to the Commission in May this year that:

However, using a basic calculation that SpaceX itself has used reveals that 29,988 deorbiting Gen2 satellites alone would deposit about 13,000,000 pounds of alumina into the upper atmosphere. Factoring in replacements for those Gen2 satellites over a 15-year license term and that Gen2 satellites may be four times more massive, the proposed Starlink expansion could well result in SpaceX releasing over 156,000,000 more pounds of alumina into the upper atmosphere.

Viasat even used the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) request that SpaceX conducts thorough safety assessments of its satellite constellation to ensure that NASA assets would not be in any danger to claim that the FCC should conduct an environmental review of the second generation Starlink constellation. NASA however followed up with another letter to clarify that its submissions are not intended to prejudice the outcome of SpaceX's request. SpaceX also followed up with key safety features of its constellation in March.

In a short clip of her interview with Le Point, Ms. Shotwell emphasized Starlink's capability to provide global broadband coverage. Her company's service has consistently outperformed global broadband internet in download speeds over the course of the last couple of quarters, and her previous statements have suggested that SpaceX is targeting a $1 trillion market with Starlink.

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