SpaceX is integrating laser terminals to all future Starlink satellites, which is why the broadband megaconstellation is taking a hiatus in launches, according to the chief operating officer and president Gwynne Shotwell. Shotwell said at the Space Symposium on Aug. 24 that adding laser crosslinks, which allow satellites to connect with each other instead of relying on the ground stations, is “why we’ve been struggling” to fly a Starlink flight since June 30.
Before the hiatus, SpaceX had been launching satellites with its Falcon 9 rocket aggressively throughout the first half of 2021, bringing the Starlink constellation to over 1,600 in low Earth orbit. Every Falcon 9 deployment for the network typically deploys 60 Starlink satellites at once. In May alone, there were 4 Starlink launch flights.
SpaceX has received regulatory approval to launch 4,408 satellites at the height of 550 kilometres for worldwide coverage. The next Starlink launch, according to Shotwell, will be in “approximately three weeks.” In January, SpaceX deployed ten Starlink satellites with the laser crosslinks into polar orbit, making it the first company to do so. This eliminated the requirement for ground stations near the poles.
A ground station doesn’t need to be in the very same satellite area as user terminals because communications can be sent from one satellite to the other on the same or nearby orbital plane. Laser crosslinks can reduce latency by reducing the number of hops between ground stations and satellites and reducing the number of ground stations required for worldwide coverage.
SpaceX is still grappling with the cost of user terminals, which it is massively subsidizing. According to Shotwell, SpaceX keeps losing money on the user terminals with each customer it recruits since their cost is greater than the average user can pay. “Excluding the user terminal, we were able to address practically all of the expense factors before we put the service,” she said.
She said that the company is on schedule to cut the price of the user terminals, which retail for $499, in half by the end of the year. “After that, we believe we’ll be able to reduce it in half again,” she continued. She did, however, mention a global shortage of semiconductors, which has “stalled the new user terminals,” as well as a shortage of liquid oxygen, which is causing further obstacles for the company’s launch.