SpaceX to launch first Starlink satellites with direct-to-cell capability – Spaceflight

A Falcon 9 rocket stands ready to support the Starlink 7-9 mission from Vandenberg Space Force Base. The mission also includes the first six satellites that will be used for the company’s direct-to-cell service. Image: SpaceX

Update 11:30 p.m. EST: SpaceX has adjusted the launch time of the mission.

SpaceX is looking to rebound from a week of scuttled launches with a Falcon 9 launch from California. The Starlink 7-9 mission will feature another batch of 21 satellites heading up to low Earth orbit, something that has become almost routine for the company.

However, this late night Thursday mission is unique in that it will include the first six Starlink satellites that feature direct-to-cell capabilities. SpaceX stated that the new function “will enable mobile network operators around the world to provide seamless global access to texting, calling and browsing… on land, lakes or coastal waters.”

Liftoff of the Falcon 9 rocket supporting the mission is targeting the end of the launch window at 12:30 a.m. PST (3:30 a.m. EST, 0830 UTC). Spaceflight Now will have live coverage of the mission starting about 30 minutes prior to liftoff.

This direct-to-cell promise for the Starlink network is the beginning of a promise announced by SpaceX founder Elon Musk during an event in August 2022 with T-Mobile CEO and President Mike Sievert at Starbase in Texas.

Musk described the capability as a “massive game changer” that would eliminate dead zones in even the most remote parts of the world.

“This really is a big deal,” Musk said during the presentation. “Even if an entire region or country lost connectivity because of a severe hurricane or floods or fires or tornados, earthquakes… even if all the cell towers were taken out, your phone would still work.”

According to a Nov. 30, 2023, email sent to Kathyrn Medley, the acting division chief of the Federal Communication’s (FCC) Satellite Licensing Division, SpaceX anticipates launching “approximately 840 direct-to-cell capable satellites over the next 6 months, with additional launches continuing after that period.”

Jameson Dempsey, SpaceX’s director of satellite policy and the author of the email, wrote that the planned and future launches would “ensure that we can launch a critical mass of satellites in time to deliver commercial service later in 2024.”

“As such, while we understand that the Commission may limit our experimental authority to the satellites we expect to launch and testing the next 6 months, we request that the launch license include authority for all 7500 satellites in our direct-to-cell modification application,” Dempsey wrote.

Sievert noted during the August 2022 event that the upcoming service in the U.S. would use the existing T-Mobile mid-band PCS spectrum.

“That allows us to then dedicate that, working together, to the constellation that Starlink operates so that we are seeing those satellites from every corner of the country,” Sievert said. “If you have a clear view of the sky, our vision is you’re connected.”

“Your phone doesn’t know it’s connecting to space. It will scan for its home network, it’ll scan for terrestrial roaming partners as well,” Sievert  added. “And if it fails to see those things, it will scan again and it will connect to the authorized connection from the satellite and it’ll think it’s connected to a cell tower because that phone is using industry standard technology communication protocols and it has the spectrum already built in. At least, the vast majority of phones in circulation today do.”

A diagram of the Starlink direct-to-cell service. Graphic: SpaceX

In addition to T-Mobile as a U.S. service provider, SpaceX said it has partnered with companies in Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and Switzerland.

Originally, the plan was to launch the service using the Starlink V2 satellites, which may still end up hosting the majority of the on-orbit antennas. However, because of their size they would need to launch using Starship.

Musk said during last year’s event that the antenna would be about five or six meters on one side or roughly 25 square meters. He noted that the Starlink V2 Mini satellites would need to work as a holdover solution, if Starship were “delayed longer than expected,” which turned out to be the case.

The six direct-to-cell satellites along with the 15 regular Starlink V2 Minis will launch aboard a Falcon 9 rocket with a brand new first stage booster. Following stage separation, the booster will land on the droneship, “Of Course I Still Love You” out in the Pacific Ocean.

Based on the photo published by SpaceX, the payload fairings that are housing the Starlink satellites are flight proven, but the company didn’t state prior to launch how many missions they’ve flown.

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