SpaceX Widens Its Orbit

SpaceX surges forward with plans to launch 12,000 satellites for total connectivity

In 2002, Elon Musk founded SpaceX. The initial aim of the aerospace startup was to reduce the cost of space travel, eventually enabling the colonisation of Mars. This formidable goal has since been followed by various other projects. Less than a decade after the company was set up, SpaceX announced that it was working on one of the most disruptive developments in the sector… reusable rockets. Then, Musk started to discuss global internet access. Last year, the company made history when it launched a resupply mission to the International Space Station on a reused rocket. Now, after receiving permission from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch 4,425 satellites this March, SpaceX is edging closer to completing ‘Starlink’, a 12,000 strong satellite fleet.

Reuse, recycle, relaunch

SpaceX’s rockets are cheaper, more scalable and more sustainable than alternatives. Of course, at a launch cost of $57m in 2012, the word cheap is relative to the industry. This week the company will launch its new generation reusable rocket, the Falcon 9 Block 5. Thanks to greater robustness, it’s hoped that the rocket will be able to fly up to 10 times. The first flight will carry a communications satellite for Bangladesh, representing yet another step (or giant leap) towards achieving the ubiquitous connectivity that has long been on Musk’s agenda.

SpaceX’s far reaching plans are a tangible example of a company using expertise in one area to make an impact in others, encouraging and taking advantage of industry convergence. There can be no doubt that a successful launch would help to strengthen SpaceX’s position as a leader in the aerospace industry, as well as a potential telecommunications provider. At first, you would have been forgiven for dismissing the company’s ambition to bring super fast, low latency internet to everyone on Earth. However, improved wifi technology, computer chips, and multi use rockets have combined to make this seem achievable.

Get out of my space

SpaceX is a serious threat to legacy competitors in aerospace and telecommunications. Boeing is currently playing catch up by building its own fleet of satellites, but still lags behind in terms of expenditure. Telecommunications providers like OneWeb and Spire have openly voiced their concerns of overcrowding, but the FCC at least has not been convinced. Telcos could disrupt themselves by offering better or entirely different services, lowering their rates, and providing more value to customers. SpaceX is now so far ahead in terms of affordability and sustainability that this will be a difficult task.

That being said, there’s always the old dictum to fall back on… If you can’t beat them, join them. SpaceX would undoubtedly get those 12,000 satellites into space far quicker if they found a way to cooperate with competitors. From a societal perspective, the formation of a 12,000 strong satellite fleet would bring positive change. Today, more than half of the world’s population is without internet connectivity. As well as widening accessibility, the fleet would enable faster online services. Internet access is a key enabler for education and therefore also for economic growth, as creative and innovative companies and individuals can access the global marketplace. This will consequently increase competition, driving the quality of products and services as businesses work harder to entice customers.

As usual, it looks as though Musk’s ambitious plans are fast becoming a reality. For the most part, they sound incredibly beneficial, especially in enabling greater connectivity than ever before. Nonetheless, there is a long way to go before Starlink is complete. The FCC may have allowed the initial launch of 4,425 satellites, but this was only on the condition that half are sent into space by early 2024. SpaceX will need to move at rocket speed, and so will their competitors in both aerospace and telecommunications in deciding how to react. Should they play catch up, or reposition their business models to pursue other ventures? Regardless of what strategy they choose, it’s safe to say that all eyes will be on the Kennedy Space Centre on Thursday.

Will SpaceX be the first to build a mass satellite fleet? What will a successful launch mean for their competitors? Is Starlink an achievable goal, or pie in the sky? Share your thoughts and opinions.

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