SpaceX launching test spacecraft on Wednesday: first step towards 12,000 internet satellite network

Written by David Adams

Wednesday February 21 should see the launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that will form the first step towards construction of a new network of 12,000 satellites offering internet connectivity.

The world's attention may have been captured by the launch of the Falcon Heavy earlier this month, but the latest rocket's payload may prove to have much more lasting significance. SpaceX’s long term plan is to create a new infrastructure for the provision of satellite internet, using a mesh of almost 12,000 satellites, called Starlink. 7,518 satellite to operate at a height of 200 miles, with another 4,425 satellites using a different radio frequency and orbiting at 700 miles. The aim is to create a fleet of satellites able to provide coverage to any location on the planet at any time.

There are still many technical challenges to overcome and the system would also need clearance from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to access the parts of the spectrum it would use, but the FCC chairman, Ajit Pai released a very supportive statement on February 14. The goal would be to launch the first of the Starlink satellites during 2019.

SpaceX is not the only company attempting to create a worldwide mesh of internet satellites: competitor OneWeb hopes to begin launching its own fleet later this year. But the OneWeb network will consist of 900 satellites, rather than the 11,943 SpaceX is planning to put into orbit.

The primary cargo carried by the Falcon 9 on February 21 is an earth observation satellite, Paz, which will collect views of the planet for government and commercial customers. But the rocket will also carry two other spacecraft, Microsat-2a and Microsat-2b, which will be used to test aspects of the proposed Starlink system.

Delayed more than once since mid-February, the Falcon 9 is due to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Wednesday 21 at 6.17am local time.