As wild as it sounds, the race is on to build a functioning space internet — and SpaceX is taking its biggest step yet with the launch of 60 (!) satellites tomorrow that will form the first wave of its Starlink constellation. It’s a hugely important and incredibly complex launch for the company — and should be well worth launching. A Falcon 9 with the flat Starlink test satellites (they’re “production design” but not final hardware) is vertical at launchpad 40 in Cape Canaveral. It has completed its static fire test and should have a window for launch tomorrow, weather permitting. Building satellite constellations hundreds or thousands strong is seen by several major companies and investors as the next major phase of connectivity — though it will take years and billions of dollars to do so. OneWeb, perhaps SpaceX’s biggest competitor in this area, just in funding after in March of a planned 650. Jeff Bezos has announced that Amazon will join the fray with the proposed 3,236-satellite Project Kuiper. Ubiquitilink has . And plenty of others are taking on smaller segments, like lower-cost or domain-specific networks. Needless to say it’s an exciting sector, but today’s launch is a particularly interesting one because it is so consequential for SpaceX. If this doesn’t go well, it could set Starlink’s plans back long enough to give competitors an edge. The satellites stacked inside the Falcon 9 payload fairing. “Tight fit,” pointed out CEO Elon Musk. SpaceX hasn’t explained exactly how the 60 satellites will be distributed to their respective orbits, but founder and CEO Elon Musk did note on Twitter that there’s “no dispenser.” Of course there must be some kind of dispenser — these things aren’t going to just jump off of their own accord. They’re stuffed in there like kernels on a corncob, and likely each have . A pair of prototype satellites, Tintin-A and B, have been in orbit since early last year, and have no doubt furnished a great deal of useful information to the Starlink program. But the 60 aboard tomorrow’s launch aren’t quite final hardware. Although Musk noted that they are “production design,” COO Gwynne Shotwell has said that they are still test models. “This next batch of satellites will really be a demonstration set for us to see the deployment scheme and start putting our network together,” she said at the Satellite 2019 conference in Washington, D.C. — they reportedly lack inter-satellite links but are otherwise functional. I’ve asked SpaceX for more information on this. It makes sense: If you’re planning to put thousands (perhaps as many as 12,000 eventually) of satellites into orbit, you’ll need to test at scale and with production hardware. And for those worried about the possibility of overpopulation in orbit — it’s absolutely something to consider, but many of these satellites will be ; at 550 kilometers up, these tiny satellites will naturally de-orbit in a handful of years. Even OneWeb’s, at 1,100 km, aren’t that high up — geosynchronous satellites are above 35,000 km. That doesn’t mean there’s no risk at all, but it does mean failed or abandoned satellites won’t stick around for long. Just don’t expect to boot up your Starlink connection any time soon. It would take a minimum of 6 more launches like this one — a total of 420, a happy coincidence for Musk — to provide “minor” coverage. This would likely only be for testing as well, not commercial service. That would need 12 more launches, and dozens more to bring it to the point where it can compete with terrestrial broadband. Even if it will take years to pull off, that is the plan. And by that time others will have spun up their operations as well. It’s an exciting time for space and for connectivity. No launch time has been set as of this writing, so takeoff is just planned for Wednesday the 15th at present. As there’s no need to synchronize the launch with the movement of any particular celestial body, T-0 should be fairly flexible and SpaceX will likely just wait for the best weather and visibility. Delays are always a possibility, though, so don’t be surprised if this is pushed out to later in the week. As always you’ll be able to watch the launch , but I’ll update this post with the live video link as soon as it’s available.
The 11th mission for New Shepard suborbital launch vehicle is slated for takeoff Tuesday morning. The craft will be carrying 38 (!) experimental payloads from NASA, students, and research organizations around the world. You’ll be able to watch the launch live tomorrow at about 6 AM Pacific time. New Shepard, though a very different beast from the Falcon 9 and Heavy launch vehicles created by its rival SpaceX, is arguably a better platform for short-duration experiments that need to be exposed to launch stresses and microgravity. Launching satellites — that’s a job for Falcons and Deltas, or perhaps Blue Origin’s impending , and they’re welcome to it. But researchers around the country are clamoring for spots on suborbital flights and Blue Origin is happy to provide them. We are targeting the next launch of tomorrow May 2nd at 8:30 am CDT / 13:30 UTC. The mission will take 38 microgravity research payloads to space. Watch the launch live at — Blue Origin (@blueorigin) Tomorrow’s launch will be carrying several dozen, some of which will have been waiting years for their chance to board a rocket. Here are a few examples of what will be tested during the short flight: : As more people go into space, we have to be prepared for more and graver injuries. Lots of standard medical tools won’t work properly in microgravity, so it’s necessary to redesign and test them under those conditions. This one is about providing suction, as you might guess, which can be used for lung injuries, drawing blood, and other situations that call for negative air pressure. This little guy will be doing microgravity test prints using metal. : Simply everyone knows we can 3D print stuff in space. But just as on Earth, you can’t always make your spare parts out of thermoplastic. Down here we use metal-based 3D printers, and this experiment aims to find out if a modified design will allow for metal printing in space as well. : It sounds like something the Enterprise would deploy in Star Trek, but it’s just a test bed for a new type of centrifuge that could help simulate other gravities, such as that of the Moon or Mars, for purposes of experiments. They do this on the ISS already but this would make it more compact and easier to automate, saving time and space aboard any craft it flies on. The suborbital centrifuge, looking as cool as it sounds. : The largest ever study of space-based health and the effects of microgravity on the human body was just concluded, but there’s much, much more to know. Part of that requires monitoring cells in real time — which like most things is easier to do on the surface. This lab-on-a-chip will test out a new technique for containing individual cells or masses and tracking changes to them in a microgravity environment. It’s all made possible through , which is specifically all about putting small experiments aboard commercial spacecraft. The rest of the many gadgets and experiments awaiting launch are . The launch itself should be very similar to previous New Shepards, just like one commercial jet takeoff is like another. The booster fires up and ascends to just short of the Karman line at 100 kilometers, which (somewhat arbitrarily) marks the start of “space.” At that point the capsule will detach and fly upwards with its own momentum, exposing the payloads within to several minutes of microgravity; after it tops out, it will descend and deploy its parachutes, after which it will drift leisurely to the ground. Meanwhile the rocket will have descended as well and made a soft landing on its deployable struts. The launch is scheduled for 6:30 AM Pacific time — 8:30 AM Central in Texas, at Blue Origin’s launch site. You’ll be able to watch it live .