From launching two test satellites in 2018 to now being the largest constellation in existence, delivering broadband internet access even to the most remote locations on Earth, Starlink has come a long way from where it began.
And on November 2, 2023, Elon Musk announced on X that SpaceX’s internet satellite business has finally reached breakeven cash flow. So, according to Musk, Starlink is now at a turning point, having surpassed the great costs of managing and starting up this endeavor with earnings.
Excited to announce that @SpaceX @Starlink has achieved breakeven cash flow! Excellent work by a great team.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 2, 2023
Starlink is also now a majority of all active satellites and will have launched a a majority of all satellites cumulatively from Earth by next year.
While details about the company’s financial situation aren’t public, the recent expansion of the service to government agencies and the deployment of the new generation Starlink v2 satellites are another sign that Starlink’s financial situation is in excellent shape.
The evolution of Starlink
Building of the constellation started back in 2019, with its first batch of 60 satellites. From there, with all necessary approvals from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and International Telecommunication Union (ITU), SpaceX moved with astonishing speed launching more and more satellites into Low Earth Orbit for their broadband service.
Initially, the proliferation of Starlink satellites presented challenges for sky observation from Earth, since the luminous streaks of light of the expanding satellite network were becoming more frequent. Despite this, launches continued, and while addressing the issue with coatings or changes in the satellites’ position, the constellation was large enough to start commercial service. In 2021 the first terminals and antennas were delivered, giving access to high-speed internet in more rural areas.
From there, with the expansion of the constellation and the launch of more developed satellites, the demand for the service grew even more, as it is still today. A substantial enhancement came from the launch of v1.5 satellites with support for laser communication between each other, along with the introduction of newer terminals.
Today, the company has expanded its reach to the transport industry, recently introducing services for aircraft, ships, and road traffic. Starlink can now be used in remote locations and the growing demands have also made it necessary to expand the production facilities. Both for the satellites themselves and for the terminals and antennas. More recently, a new facility for production of the latter has opened in Bastrop, Texas.
As detailed in another article, SpaceX has also started offering its Starlink constellations’ capabilities to the US government and military, with what is called “Starshield”.
A capable rocket for a monumental project
A fundamental protagonist of the Starlink constellation is undoubtedly the Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket. It has been launching all the satellite batches to orbit in the last 4 years and has surpassed a series of records in the meantime.
According to Elon Musk, by next year, the number of Starlink satellites launched to LEO will be greater than the total number of satellites ever launched from Earth for any other purpose. All of this will be made possible by a standardized and efficient satellite design, as is Starlink v2, and a reliable launch vehicle.
The Starlink v2 satellites being launched on Falcon 9 are actually a “mini” version of the actual satellites. SpaceX intended to launch the first batch of v2 Satellites, reportedly weighing more than a ton each, aboard Starship as soon as 2021, but as we know, the program suffered delays. This could all change soon, but for now, it’s up to Starship’s older, smaller brother to get the job done.
New heights for Falcon 9
The launches of Starlink satellites have certainly been one if not the most tasking undertaking for F9. With the last flight, on November 8th, SpaceX has now launched F9 80 times in a year, with a mind-boggling 1000 metric tons of payload successfully delivered to orbit. As if this wasn’t enough, SpaceX also decided to push the envelope even more. It’s not just an increase in launch frequency, but also in payload capacity and booster reusability.
Just one week ago, with the Starlink 6-26 batch onboard, the booster B1058 landed for the 18th time, a monumental record. Especially considering that from a few weeks earlier, Falcon 9 had started to carry 23 and not 22 v2-mini satellites to orbit, becoming one of the heaviest payloads ever carried, reportedly at 18,400 kg.
As 2023 is nearing its conclusion, Musk anticipates the launch cadence will reach an even higher pace next year, with Starlink expanding to even more fields and delivering high-speed internet access to all parts of the globe.