SpaceX's plan to provide broadband access will take a big step forward Wednesday night as the Elon Musk-led firm prepares to launch five dozen small satellites on a single rocket. They will eventually become part of a network of thousands of internet-beaming spacecraft.
The launch is scheduled for 10:30 p.m. Eastern time (7:30 p.m. Pacific time) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Following the launch, Hawthorne-based SpaceX plans to land the rocket's first-stage booster on a floating platform in the Atlantic Ocean.
The 60 satellites, which weigh about 500 pounds each, are expected to deploy from the rocket's second stage about an hour after liftoff, when they reach a point about 273 miles above the Earth. The satellites will then propel themselves with tiny ion thrusters toward their final destination -- an altitude of about 341 miles.
Last year, SpaceX launched two demonstration satellites for its proposed Starlink broadband satellite constellation. The company has said those satellites, known as Tintin A and B, communicated with ground stations on Earth and remain in operation.
The satellites set to launch Wednesday, however, are a bit different. Musk tweeted last week that these are "production design" satellites, rather than the demonstration versions that launched last year.
But don't expect the company to offer service immediately -- Musk said on Twitter that 360 more satellites would be needed for "minor coverage," with hundreds more necessary for "moderate" coverage. SpaceX has said it plans to provide coverage in the U.S. and around the world.
"Much will likely go wrong on 1st mission," he tweeted. SpaceX was similarly explicit about its expectations, saying in a mission overview that the operational capabilities of the satellites will be pushed "to the limit."
SpaceX's plan to offer internet service, particularly in unconnected areas, is crucial to the company's future success. It is unclear whether SpaceX would sell the broadband service itself or if it would do so through another company. A SpaceX official said last year that services will be aimed at individual households and small businesses.
When SpaceX announced layoffs earlier this year, the company said in a statement that it needed to become a "leaner" company, in part, to succeed at its "global space-based internet" initiative. In 2015, Musk estimated that the project could cost $10 billion to $15 billion.
That work and its Mars spaceship development have "bankrupted" other organizations, the company said at the time, "even when attempted separately."
And SpaceX has competition. Amazon.com Inc., OneWeb and Canadian satellite operator Telesat, among others, have all announced their intentions to develop similar constellations of hundreds or even thousands of satellites to beam internet to Earth.
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