WASHINGTON — The 60 satellites SpaceX launched eight days ago for its Starlink broadband megaconstellation have powered up and contacted ground stations, the company said.
All 60 satellites — the first in a constellation that could one day number 12,000 — have deployed solar arrays, a SpaceX spokesperson said, and most are in the process of climbing from their 440-kilometer drop-off point to their 550-kilometer target orbit.
“SpaceX continues to monitor the constellation for any satellites that may need to be safely deorbited,” the spokesperson said. “All the satellites have maneuvering capability and are programmed to avoid each other and other objects in orbit by a wide margin.”
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk cautioned that because the Starlink satellites carry a significant amount of new technology, they risked not working as planned once launched.
“It’s possible that some of these satellites may not work, and in fact [there’s a] small possibility that all of the satellites will not work,” he said during a call with reporters May 15. “But these are a great design and we’ve done everything we can to maximize probability of success.”
That new technology includes electric propulsion thrusters that run on krypton instead of the typical xenon, and advanced phased array antennas for communications. Most of the 60 satellites have employed those technologies so far, the spokesperson said, though they didn’t specify how many.
The spokesperson said the Starlink satellites will become less visible as they complete their orbit raising — a process expected to take three to four weeks.
“[T]he observability of the Starlink satellites is dramatically reduced as they raise orbit to greater distance and orient themselves with the phased array antennas toward Earth and their solar arrays behind the body of the satellite,” the spokesperson said.
The easy visibility of the first 60 Starlink satellites after the launch triggered concern among stargazers and astronomers that the satellites would be very prominent in the sky when numbered in the hundreds and thousands.
Musk tweeted May 27 that he inquired with the Starlink team about albedo reduction for the satellites. SpaceX will have a better understanding of the reflectiveness of the satellites once orbit raising is complete and the satellites are tracking with the sun, he said.
“[W]e’ll make sure Starlink has no material effect on discoveries in astronomy,” Musk said. “We care a great deal about science.”