March 4, 2024

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SpaceX launches first Starlink satellites with direct cell capability – Spaceflight Now

SpaceX launches first Starlink satellites with direct cell capability – Spaceflight Now
A Falcon 9 rocket is ready to support the Starlink 7-9 mission from Vandenberg Space Force Base. The mission also includes the first six satellites that will be used for the company’s direct-to-cell service. Image: SpaceX

Update 1:13 AM EDT: SpaceX has delayed the launch until Friday night at 9:19 PM PST (12:19 AM EDT, 0519 UTC).

SpaceX is looking to rebound from a week of failed launches by launching a Falcon 9 from California. The Starlink 7-9 mission will include another group of 21 satellites heading into low Earth orbit, something that has become almost routine for the company.

However, this late Friday night mission is unique in that it will involve the first six Starlink satellites to include this feature. directly to the cell Capabilities. SpaceX stated that the new functionality “will enable mobile network operators around the world to provide seamless global access to texting, calling and browsing… on land, lakes or coastal waters.”

The launch of the Falcon 9 rocket supporting the mission is targeted to open the launch window at 9:19 PM PST (12:19 AM EDT, 0519 UTC). Spaceflight Now will have live coverage of the mission starting about 30 minutes before liftoff.

This direct-to-cell promise for the Starlink network is the beginning of one announced by SpaceX founder Elon Musk during an August 2022 event with T-Mobile CEO and President Mike Sievert at Starbase in Texas.

Musk described this capability as a “huge game changer” that would eliminate dead zones even in the most remote areas of the world.

“This is really important,” Musk said during the presentation. “Even if an entire region or country loses connectivity due to a severe hurricane, floods, fires, tornadoes, or earthquakes…even if all cell towers are taken down, your phone will still work.”

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According to a November 30, 2023 email sent to Katherine Medley, acting head of the FCC’s Satellite Licensing Division, SpaceX expects to launch “approximately 840 satellites capable of direct cell communication over the next six months,” With additional launches continuing after that period.

Planned and future launches “will ensure that we are able to launch a critical mass of satellites in time for commercial service later in 2024,” wrote Jameson Dempsey, director of satellite policy at SpaceX and author of the email.

“As such, while we recognize that the Commission may limit our test authority to satellites that we expect to launch and test within the next six months, we request that the launch license include authority for all 7,500 satellites to apply direct cell modification.”, Dempsey wrote.

Sievert noted during an August 2022 event that the upcoming service in the US will use T-Mobile’s existing mid-band PCS spectrum.

“That allows us to then dedicate that, working together, to the constellation that Starlink operates in so we can see those satellites from every corner of the country,” Seifert said. “If you have a clear view of the sky, our vision is that you are connected.”

“Your phone doesn’t know it’s connected to space. It will search for its home network, and it will search for terrestrial roaming partners as well.” He added. “And if it fails to see those things, it will scan again and it will connect to the authorized connection from the satellite and it will think it is connected to a cell tower because this phone uses industry standard technology communications protocols and has the spectrum already integrated. At least, the vast majority of phones in circulation do.” Today you do it.

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Schematic of Starlink direct-to-cell service. Graphic: SpaceX

In addition to T-Mobile as a US service provider, SpaceX said it has partnered with companies in Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and Switzerland.

Originally, the plan was to launch the service using Starlink V2 satellites, which may still host the majority of antennas in orbit. However, due to its size, it would need to be launched using a spacecraft.

The antenna will be about five or six meters on one side, or about 25 square metres, Musk said during last year’s event. He noted that the Starlink V2 Mini satellites would need to serve as a temporary solution, if Starship was delayed longer than expected, which turned out to be the case.

The six direct-to-cell satellites plus 15 regular Starlink V2 Minis will be launched aboard a Falcon 9 rocket with a brand-new first-stage booster. After stage separation, the booster will land on the drone, “Of Course I Still Love You” in the Pacific Ocean.

Based on an image posted by SpaceX, the payload interfaces containing the Starlink satellites have proven flight-proven, but the company did not say before the launch how many missions they had flown.