Billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX firm has launched a Falcon 9 rocket containing the first 60 satellites of its multibillion-dollar “Starlink” constellation. The system is intended to provide internet from space and could one day number 12,000 satellites.
The rocket took off without incident from Cape Canaveral in Florida around 10:30 p.m. local time (0230 UTC).
The second stage will see the satellites released one hour after launch, at an altitude of 270 miles (440 kilometers). They will then use their thrusters to take up position in a relatively low orbit of 340 miles (550 kilometers).
That’s slightly higher than the International Space Station, but well below the majority of terrestrial satellites, the highest of which sit in a geostationary orbit of 22,400 miles (36,000 kilometers).
The launch marks the heaviest payload for any SpaceX rocket to date, as each satellite weighs 500 pounds (227 kilograms).
The satellites are designed to form the initial phase of a planned constellation capable of beaming signals for high-speed internet service from space to paying customers around the globe. Starlink will become operational once 800 satellites have been activated, which will require a dozen more launches.
Musk has said he sees the new Starlink venture as an important new revenue stream for his California-based Space Exploration Technologies, known as SpaceX, whose launch service income he expects to top out at around $3 billion (€2.7 billion) a year.
The latest launch will make SpaceX an early forerunner, along with rival OneWeb, a startup, but well ahead of Amazon’s Project Kuiper, the brainchild of Musk’s space rival Jeff Bezos.