A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on January 24, 2021 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images
SpaceX’s satellite-based internet service Starlink is gaining new users at a record pace. Less than a year since Starlink rolled out beta service, more than 100,000 user terminals have been shipped globally, Elon Musk tweeted Monday afternoon.
In an update with the Federal Communications Commission on July 29, SpaceX said it had 90,000 Starlink users in 12 countries. That represented 20,000 new user registrations in a single month since Musk’s last update in June. His tweets this week suggest that Starlink has expanded to two more countries and attracted at least 10,000 new users in August.
“Our license applications are pending in many more countries. Hoping to serve Earth soon!” Musk tweeted Monday.
Now serving 🇺🇸 🇨🇦 🇬🇧 🇩🇪 🇫🇷 🇦🇹 🇳🇱 🇮🇪 🇧🇪 🇨🇭 🇩🇰 🇵🇹 🇳🇿 🇦🇺
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 23, 2021
SpaceX told the FCC in its July update that Starlink had over half a million new orders waiting to be fulfilled.
To date, SpaceX has deployed more than 1,700 Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit, forming a constellation large enough to beam high-speed internet signals down across the globe, including remote areas where cable and fiber-optic internet is unavailable.
SpaceX ultimately plans to build a constellation of nearly 30,000 satellites—that’s ten times the number of active satellites currently orbiting Earth. The company has the FCC’s green light to launch 12,000 satellites and is applying for broader permission.
In an application for the next-generation Starlink deployment, submitted to the FCC on August 18, SpaceX proposed two new configurations for the constellation, one of which would use the Starship rocket to launch future satellites.
“SpaceX has found ways to leverage the advanced capabilities of its new launch vehicle, Starship, that has increased capability to deliver more mass to orbit quickly and efficiently and, combined with reuse capability of the upper stage, launch more often,” the company said in the application. “Further, Starship allows SpaceX to iterate from its original satellite design and deploy next-generation satellites with more capacity and throughput, providing even further improvements for consumers to its already high-throughput, low-latency service.”
The other configuration would continue using the current setup, which involves a Falcon 9 rocket, for future satellite launches.
SpaceX noted in the application that the Starship configuration was its “preferred scenario.”
Starlink’s beta service costs $99 a month, as well as a $499 upfront fee for a user terminal, which customers can easily install by themselves.
The Virgin Orbit Launcher One rocket in its hanger at Newquay Airport on August 10, 2021 in Newquay, England. Hugh R Hastings/Getty Images
Virgin Orbit, a satellite launch startup spun off from Richard Branson’s space tourism company Virgin Galactic, announced Monday that it’s preparing to go public through a reverse merger with the special-purpose acquisition firm (SPAC) NextGen Acquisition II that will value the combined company at $3.2 billion.
The target valuation is more than three times what Virgin Orbit was worth at the end of 2020 and twice what Virgin Galactic was valued at when it went public (also through a SPAC merger) in late 2019.
Virgin Orbit will trade on Nasdaq under the ticker “NGCA.” Shares will convert to “VORB” when the transaction is complete later this year.
Talks of the SPAC deal was first reported in June. The reverse merger is expected to raise $483 million for Virgin Orbit, including $100 million in PIPE (private investment in public equity) funding from investors such as Boeing and the private equity firm AE Industrial Partners.
Boeing also plays an important role in Virgin Orbit’s unique “air-launch” system, which carries satellites into the sky by attaching a booster underneath a modified Boeing 747 aircraft. After reaching a certain altitude, the 747 will release the booster, which will then fire up its own engine and climb up to orbit.
Virgin Orbit successfully reached orbit with this system, called LauncherOne, in a test flight in January. This approach provides more flexibility than the industry standard vertical-launch rockets, the company said.
LauncherOne is designed to send small satellites that weigh up to 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) into space. Demand for launching satellites in this range is booming in recent years as a crop of commercial satellite makers enter the industry. These satellites usually don’t make a full payload on a regular-sized rocket, making launch opportunities scarce and expensive.
Full-size rocket makers, notably SpaceX, are eyeing the small satellite market as well with offerings such as satellite “rideshare” programs that allow outside clients to fly along on these companies’ regular missions.
Founded in 2017, Virgin Orbit is owned by Branson’s multinational conglomerate Virgin Group, with a minority stake from Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund Mubadala. Together, they have invested about $1 billion in the company. The SPAC merger represents a 300 percent return on their investments.
Virgin Orbit is expected to incur a loss of $156 million this year, according to CNBC, but aims to grow revenue rapidly in the coming years and be profitable by 2024. The company has $300 million in active contracts, with another $2.3 billion in “identified sales opportunities currently being pursued,” CEO Dan Hart told CNBC.