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SpaceX’s launch tonight is being performed for a very important client: itself. Yes, the Falcon 9 that will lift off at 7:30 PM Pacific time is loaded not with government or commercial payloads, but the first of SpaceX’s own Starlink orbital communications satellites. You can watch this first-of-its-kind launch here.
In the launch press kit (PDF), SpaceX provided new details of the launch, deployment process, and the Starlink satellites themselves, which have only been described in roundabout fashion via regulatory filings and such.
Pounds - Starlink - Satellites - Lbs - Payload
Weighing 500 pounds each, the 60 Starlink satellites add up to around 30,000 lbs of payload, considerably less than the Falcon 9’s upper limit of over 50,000 lbs. I wouldn’t have guessed they were quite as heavy as that — some communications satellites are small enough you could easily lift them with one hand, though others, like OneWeb’s and of course geosynchronous ones, are much larger.
Although that leaves plenty of unused lift capacity, the satellites and their deployment platform take up practically every cubic inch of the Falcon 9’s usable interior. This launch is limited by volume, not mass.
Satellites - Design - Antennas - Solar - Array
The satellites have a “flat-panel design featuring multiple high-throughput antennas and a single solar array.” They use krypton-fueled Hall thrusters to get around, which will come in handy during the last part of the deployment, as we shall see. In addition, as SpaceX explains:
Each spacecraft is equipped with a Startracker navigation system that allows SpaceX to point the satellites with precision. Importantly, Starlink satellites are capable of tracking on-orbit debris and autonomously avoiding collision. Additionally, 95 percent of all components of this design will quickly burn in Earth’s atmosphere at the end...
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