The third key innovation from SpaceX that makes Starlink possible is the mass-produced, inexpensive, flat-packed satellite.
Because Starlink satellites fly very low to provide very low latency service, the satellites move across the sky very quickly and that means you need a lot of them to provide continuous coverage. Also, because one satellite can only serve a certain number of people for a given area, you want multiple satellites overhead of any location at any given time to be able to support many customers. SpaceX has already launched over 1,000 Starlink satellites and the constellation is just getting started with several thousands more planned for the first phase and even more than that planned for the second phase. If SpaceX is successful, they will have somewhere between 12,000 and 40,000 satellites in low earth orbit.
So, how do you build and launch thousands of satellites in short order? You mass produce them, at a low cost, and at a size and shape that makes it easy to mass launch them.
Traditional telecommunications satellites are gigantic in size, weight, and effort. A provider of traditional satellite internet could spend something like five or six years developing a single satellite at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. Because of their size, they rarely launch more than one at a time and launches can cost a hundred million dollars or more. If anything goes wrong with the launch or the orbiting satellite, it’s a catastrophic failure.
SpaceX treats satellites quite differently. They miniaturized and streamlined the design so they can fit dozens of Starlink satellites in the footprint of just one traditional telecommunications satellite. They’ve designed Starlink to be flat-packed to be densely stacked inside a rocket nosecone, 60 at a time. They’ve created a satellite assembly line that produces them for as little as a few hundred thousand dollars each, and as many as 120 a month. If one of them fails, even after launch, it’s no big deal because there are so many others and a failed satellite is easily and cheaply replaced.
Fast, cheap, and small, Starlink satellites are radically different than anything that’s come before and it’s those innovative characteristics that help make Starlink possible.