SpaceX plans 24 Starlink launches next year

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PARIS — SpaceX hopes to launch 24 Starlink missions in 2020 as the company builds out a broadband megaconstellation that could ultimately number close to 12,000 satellites, a company executive said Sept. 10. 

SpaceX’s Starlink launch cadence will likely average “two a month,” in addition to customer launches, Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, said at the World Satellite Business Week conference here. 

“Next year, I hope we launch 24 Starlinks,” Shotwell said. 

Shotwell said SpaceX might launch more Starlink missions this year, but the final number will depend on customer missions. SpaceX will prioritize launching customers before its own broadband satellites, she said. 

“If some customers move out, I’ll have some Starlink launches — maybe up to four Starlink launches this year — but we won’t push a customer out for that, so we will wait and see what the end of the year looks like and see what we can fit in.”

Shotwell didn’t specify if Starlink missions will be solely on Falcon 9s or if they will also include Falcon Heavy launches. 

After inducing launch delays for customers due to Falcon 9 rocket failures in 2015 and 2016, SpaceX is now caught up on late missions — so much so that rockets are ready before customer satellites, Shotwell said. 

“This is the first year that we are seeing that we are now ready to fly our customers before they are ready,” she said. 

Shotwell estimated SpaceX will do seven to eight more missions this year, including Starlink. Previously, the company estimated 24 to 25 launches in 2019, but several customer missions weren’t ready in time, she said. 

SpaceX has flown 10 rockets this year — eight Falcon 9s and two Falcon Heavies. Shotwell didn’t say how many total launches SpaceX plans in 2020, only that it is “much higher” than this year’s projected max of 18.

SpaceX launched its first 60 Starlink satellites in May using a Falcon 9 rocket. The company is deorbiting at least five of those satellites — three due to malfunctions and two to test intentional deorbiting procedures

When — and with what coverage — Starlink begins service may hinge on the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s decision on a filing SpaceX made in late August. SpaceX asked the FCC to allow it to triple the number of orbital planes, or pathways, for Starlink satellites at 550 kilometers. By using 72 orbital planes instead of 24, Starlink can extend its reach to customers in lower latitudes more quickly and with fewer launches, SpaceX said. 

In May, prior to the filing, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said that Starlink will have consistent partial coverage with 400 satellites, and should be “economically viable” at 1,000 satellites. 

Mark Juncosa, SpaceX’s vice president of vehicle engineering, said in May that 30 Starlink launches would be sufficient for global coverage based on the company’s deployment plans at the time.