SpaceX sends first direct-to-cell Starlinks to orbit

It's like a cell tower... in spaaaaace

SpaceX has put the first six Direct to Cell-capable Starlink satellites into orbit following a successful Jan 3, 2023 launch.

Liftoff, which took place at 0344 UTC today, launched a batch of 21 Starlink satellites to Low Earth Orbit from Space Launch Complex 4 East (SLS-4E) at California's Vandenberg Space Force Base. SpaceX has now notched up 296 launches, 260 landings, and 231 reflights. The launch was the first flight for this particular booster.

While the launch was routine, the most notable part of the payload are the cell-capable sats, which the company says will provide "seamless access to text, voice and data for LTE phones across the globe."

The mission came weeks after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) cleared SpaceX to start testing the service. The company told the agency it required "experimental" authority to kick off testing, and has 180 days to do so.

In its application, SpaceX said the testing would involve around 840 satellites with direct-to-cellular payloads, of which approximately 60 would serve US handsets at any given time.

According to SpaceX, "The enhanced Starlink satellites have an advanced modem that acts as a cellphone tower in space, eliminating deadzones with network integration similar to a standard roaming partner."

The launch opens up another front in the battle of the billionaire constellations. Jeff Bezos' Project Kuiper is currently testing its first prototype satellites, with production versions set to join them in orbit. SpaceX plans to use cellular spectrum from its mobile partners – T-Mobile in the US – to make the service commercially available.

However, regulatory approval is required to make that happen. The company also faces criticism from competitors concerned about the potential for interference, and some astronomers might be alarmed to note that, according to SpaceX's webcast, "we do expect these first six Starlink direct-to-cell satellites to be a bit brighter than previous Starlink V2 Minis."

SpaceX has, however, said that after it has measured the effect, it will take steps to make future satellites as dim as possible. "We firmly believe in the importance of a natural night sky for all of us to enjoy."

So that's alright then.

As well as T-Mobile in the US, SpaceX has hooked up with operators in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Switzerland, and Chile. A messaging service should come first, followed by voice and data. ®

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