The 60 satellites packed tightly into a fairing.
Image: SpaceX

With one launch in the books and potentially dozens still to go, SpaceX has begun its build-out of the ambitious Starlink internet constellation—a series of interconnected satellites designed to deliver high-speed internet to paying customers around the globe.

The 60 Starlink satellites, each weighing 500 pounds (227 kg), were released to low Earth orbit (LEO) yesterday at around 11:32 pm ET, SpaceX confirmed in a series of tweets. Together, the tightly packed satellites weighed 13.6 metric tons, “making this launch the heaviest mission for SpaceX to date,” according to SpaceNews.

The satellites were deposited at an altitude of 400 kilometers (250 miles) by a Falcon 9 rocket that launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The reusable rocket booster successfully landed upright on a droneship in the Atlantic ocean nine minutes after launch.

Once complete, the Starlink constellation of satellites would transmit signals for high-speed internet access to paying customers. The massive telecommunications system should go online once 400 satellites are in orbit and activated, but Starlink will reach “significant operational capacity” at 800 satellites, in the words of SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, as reported by SpaceNews. The private space firm will need to conduct at least a dozen or more launches before this can happen. Musk said Starlink will become “economically viable” at 1,000 units. Incredibly, as many as 12,000 satellites could one day comprise the entire Starlink constellation. Starlink is expected to go online by the mid 2020s.

Indeed, this venture, announced in 2015, could represent an important new revenue stream for SpaceX. Musk has previously stated that monies generated by the Starlink project will be used to fund eventual missions to Mars. The internet service enabled by Starlink is expected to be low cost and accessible to remote areas of the world where internet is hard to come by.

Two experimental Starlink satellites were launched to orbit in February 2018. Yesterday’s deployment of 60 satellites is the first build-out of the system.

Each Starlink satellite is designed to last no longer than five years, after which time it’s supposed to fall into and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. This should reduce space debris, and allow the private space firm to replace them with more advanced versions, per a SpaceX press kit. The satellites are also equipped with technology to help them avoid collisions in LEO. Each device is powered by a single solar array and equipped with a navigation system that will allow SpaceX to accurately track the satellites. Thrusters on each satellite will nudge them to an operational altitude of 550 kilometers (340 miles).

Earth’s low orbit is about to become a very busy place—and not just on account of SpaceX. Similar constellations are being developed by OneWeb, Space Norway, and Telesat for the U.S. market, which suggests this is about to become a highly competitive space. In space.