SpaceX rolls out maritime internet service on same day as another Starlink launch

SpaceX’s Starlink 4-21 mission lifted off July 7 on a Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

SpaceX launched another group of 53 satellites from Cape Canaveral for the company’s Starlink internet network Thursday, the same day it unveiled a new maritime broadband service. Federal regulators recently approved SpaceX’s request to provide Starlink connectivity for mobile users.

The launch began at 9:11:10 a.m. EDT (1311:10 GMT) Thursday with the liftoff of a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Nine Merlin main engines ignited and throttled up to generate 1.7 million pounds of thrust to accelerate the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 away from pad 40 at the Florida spaceport.

The Falcon 9 headed northeast from Cape Canaveral, following a familiar trajectory used on most of SpaceX’s recent Starlink missions. The rocket broke the sound barrier in about a minute, then shut down and shed its first stage booster two-and-a-half minutes into the flight.

The first stage booster — known as tail number B1058 — descended to a successful landing on SpaceX’s drone ship “Just Read the Instructions” in the Atlantic Ocean about 400 miles (630 kilometers) northeast of the launch site. The landing punctuated the 13th flight of this booster, tying a record for the most-flown rocket in SpaceX’s reusable Falcon launcher fleet.

The Starlink payloads, built by SpaceX in Redmond, Washington, were flat-packed inside the nose cone of the Falcon 9 rocket at liftoff. The Falcon 9’s upper stage continued into orbit, jettisoned its payload shroud, and released the 53 Starlink satellites about 15-and-a-half minutes into the flight.

The launch Thursday was designated Starlink 4-21, and marked the 49th SpaceX mission primarily dedicated to launching satellites for the Starlink broadband network. SpaceX said in May it has more than 400,000 subscribers for the Starlink internet service, which is designed to eventually provide high-speed, low-latency connectivity anywhere in the world.

SpaceX rolled out its maritime internet service offering July 7. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX is about halfway through the build-out of its first-generation network, which will number around 4,400 active satellites, according the company’s filings with the Federal Communications Commission. With the 53 satellites launched Thursday, SpaceX  has shot 2,759 Starlink spacecraft into orbit, including prototypes and decommissioned satellites no longer in service.

A tabulation by Jonathan McDowell, a respected expert tracker of spaceflight activity, showed SpaceX has more than 2,400 Starlink satellites currently operating in orbit. Around 2,030 satellites are providing commercial services, according to McDowell. That’s nearly five times more than any other satellite fleet.

SpaceX does not provide a regularly updated figure for how many satellites are in service.

The launch Thursday placed the newest 53 Starlink payloads into an orbit inclined 53.2 degrees to the equator, one of five orbital “shells” that make up the first-generation Starlink network. The satellites will unfurl solar panels and activate krypton-fueled ion engines to climb from their initial orbit to their operating altitude about 335 miles (540 kilometers) above Earth.

The launch Thursday — the 28th SpaceX mission this year — was the first of at least five Falcon 9 missions currently scheduled for July. They include three more Starlink missions later this month, plus the launch of a Dragon cargo ship to the International Space Station on July 14.

The next SpaceX launch is scheduled for Sunday from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, carrying the next batch of Starlink satellites to orbit.

So far, SpaceX has focused its Starlink service offering to homes and businesses using fixed antennas. The Federal Communications Commission announced June 30 that it approved SpaceX’s request to begin offering Starlink connectivity to customers on-the-move. SpaceX previously marketed Starlink terminals for RVs, but the antenna was designed for use while the vehicle was not in motion.

“Authorizing a new class of terminals for SpaceX’s satellite system will expand the range of broadband capabilities to meet the growing user demands that now require connectivity while on the move, whether driving an RV across the country, moving a freighter from Europe to a U.S. port, or while on a domestic or international flight,” wrote Thomas Sullivan, chief of the FCC’s international bureau.

Credit: Spaceflight Now

The FCC also approved Kepler Communications, a Canadian company in the early phase of deploying its own satellite constellation, to provide connectivity to ships.

SpaceX has signed deals with multiple air carriers to provide in-flight Wi-Fi for passengers, and now has approval from federal regulators to provide the service. Cruise ships, cargo vessels, private yachts, trucks, buses, and RVs are also target markets for SpaceX’s Starlink network.

The U.S. military is also a prospective customer for Starlink services. The military has conducted connectivity experiments with the Starlink fleet on airplanes, and Delta Air Lines has performed similar preliminary testing.

Customers can sign up for Starlink service online by paying a reservation fee and paying $599 for an antenna and modem. SpaceX charges $110 per month for consumer-grade Starlink service, and an additional $25 per month for the ability to relocate Starlink antennas on vehicles like RVs.

Hours after Thursday’s rocket launch, SpaceX announced a new program for maritime customers to sign up for Starlink internet service. SpaceX said it will charge customers a one-time fee of $10,000 for two “high-performance terminals” to place on boats, yachts, ships, and oil rigs. The monthly rate for maritime users will be $5,000 per month, SpaceX said.

The Starlink connection will provide maritime customers with a download speed of 350 Mbps, according to SpaceX.

“From merchant vessels to oil rigs to premium yachts, Starlink Maritime allows you to connect from the most remote waters across the world, just like you would in the office or at home,” SpaceX said.

Vessels in SpaceX’s fleet, including a drone ship used for landing rockets at sea. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX said its teams are using the company’s own Starlink service to support operations on recovery vessels at sea. SpaceX’s vessels are used for rocket landings, retrieving payload fairing shells, and recovering crew and cargo capsules after missions to the International Space Station.

In a case study released Thursday, SpaceX said its 10 ocean-going vessels previously relied on traditional satellite internet services beamed from spacecraft in geostationary orbit more than 22,000 miles (nearly 36,000 kilometers) above Earth.

But the connections were too costly, didn’t provide enough bandwidth, and weren’t reliable, SpaceX said.

“As the maritime industry moves toward an autonomous future, affordable, low latency bandwidth to deliver terabytes of data back to shore command centers is paramount,” SpaceX said.

The company’s drone ships self-propelled with underwater thrusters, and a remote operator on shore monitors and controls the ship during deployments. The switch from using third-party geostationary satellites to SpaceX’s own lower-altitude Starlink satellites reduced the latency in the internet connection with the drone ship from 1 to 2 seconds to 50 milliseconds, according to SpaceX.

According to the case study, there were also significant improvements in data throughput and reduction in costs.

“With Starlink, the throughput boost combined with exceptional connection stability enables continuous live video during rocket landings and improved the video quality.”

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.