SpaceX conducted its record 70th launch of 2022 on December 23rd, sending another batch of Starlink internet satellites into orbit. The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, marking several notable milestones for reusability and testing new technology.
Falcon 9 Sets New Reuse Record
The first stage booster supporting this mission previously launched and landed 18 times, setting a new record for SpaceX. As founder Elon Musk noted on Twitter, “the goal is to launch & land the same rocket booster 100+ times.” By continually refurbishing and reflying Falcon boosters, SpaceX aims to drastically reduce launch costs and make ambitious projects like the Starlink constellation economically feasible.
This booster, nicknamed B1063, debuted nearly three years ago. After each launch, SpaceX attempts to land the reusable first stage on an autonomous drone ship or back on land. Refurbishing between flights allows for continued reuse, leveraging operational data to make each vehicle more reliable.
Expanding the Starlink Internet Constellation
This mission orbited the 6-32 batch of Starlink satellites, comprising 23 updated models with added capabilities. There are now over 3,600 Starlink spacecraft launched to date, though only 3,236 currently remain on orbit providing service.
Starlink aims to offer high-speed, low-latency internet access virtually anywhere in the world. SpaceX continues rapidly growing the constellation to boost coverage and capacity. Analyst predictions estimate Starlink may reach up to 500,000 subscribers by the end of 2023.
New Direct to Cell Testing
Uniquely, six satellites on this flight are the first equipped with direct-to-cell capabilities. This includes custom antennae offering basic 4G LTE cellular connectivity directly from orbit. SpaceX received FCC approval just last week to test this new technology.
|4G LTE @ ~2 GHz
Rather than connecting phones through local towers, these satellites could enable connectivity virtually anywhere a user has line-of-sight sky access. Latency may reach 50-75ms, competitive with standard networks. Officially dubbed “Satellink”, early trials seem imminent pending initial orbital checkout.
SpaceX filed plans outlining an envisioned network of up to 30,000 second-generation Starlink satellites. If fully deployed, simulations suggest over 85% global average coverage could be achieved for direct satellite-to-phone service. Even partial constellation build-out could provide vital connectivity across remote areas.
Outlook Going Forward
Starlink enables SpaceX’s long-term vision of colonizing Mars by helping fund extensive rocket and spacecraft development. Growing the subscriber base is key to making the finances work. Testing direct cellular connections marks a major step towards expanding reach and user options.
While an impressive feat by any measure, this mission contributed to a record-setting year for SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9. Including this flight, Falcon rockets completed 70 orbital launches in 2022 – more than any other US vehicle in history. SpaceX shows no signs of slowing down, with numerous missions already preparing across their Florida, California, and Texas launch sites. Company leadership aims to sustain over 100 flights per year in the near future.
With the cellular test approval in hand, SpaceX seems poised to validate direct phone links from space on an accelerated timeline. If successful, rolling out satellite-based cell networks could commence within a couple years. While still an experiment today, “Satellink” might soon connect remote regions otherwise unserved by traditional infrastructure.
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