Speaking at Tesla’s annual shareholder meeting, CEO Elon Musk – also CEO of SpaceX – briefly segued to his spaceflight company’s ambitious Starlink program and discussed how he believes the satellite constellation can support no more than 3-5% of the global population.
On May 23rd, SpaceX successfully launched 60 “v0.9” Starlink satellites – weighing as much as 18.5 tons (~41,000 lb) – into LEO, a first step unmatched in ambition in the history of commercial satellites. Delivered to an orbit of ~450 km (280 mi), all but four of the 60 spacecraft have managed to successfully power up their electric ion thrusters and 55 have already raised their orbits to ~500 km (310 mi). For what is effectively a technology/partial-prototype demonstration mission, the record of Starlink v0.9 performance is extremely impressive and bodes well for a quick and relatively easy design optimization (to “v1.0”) before true mass production can begin.
In general, Musk was more than willing to acknowledge some of the potential limitations of a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) broadband satellite constellation at Tesla’s 2019 shareholder meeting. Most notably, he bluntly noted that Starlink is not designed to service densely populated areas and will predominately be focused on low to medium-density populaces. Triggered by an investor’s question about the possibility of integrating Starlink into future Tesla cars, Musk reiterated that SpaceX’s first-generation Starlink user terminals (i.e. ground antennas) will be roughly the size of a “medium pizza”.
Although pizza sizing is not exactly ISO-certified, Starlink’s user antennas will presumably be around 12-14 inches (30-36 cm) wide and come in a square form factor. Thanks to the use of what Musk believes are the most advanced phased array antennas in the world, neither the antennas on Starlink satellites or user terminals will need to physically move to maintain a strong signal. Still, as Musk notes, an antenna the size of medium pizza box would still stick out like a sore thumb on the typically all-glass roof of an of Tesla’s consumer cars, although built-in Starlink antennas might actually make sense on Tesla Semis.
Elon Musk’s specific comment indicated that Starlink – at least in its current iteration – was never meant to serve more than “3-5%” of Earth (population: ~7.8 billion), with most or all of its users nominally located in areas with low to medium population densities. This generally confirms technical suspicions that Starlink (and other constellations like OneWeb and Telesat) is not really capable of providing internet to everyone per se.
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In general, CEO Elon Musk’s comments serve as an excellent temper to the hype surrounding Starlink. SpaceX isn’t going to initially be breaking the backs of Comcast or Time Warner but there’s no reason to believe that that day will never come.