Starlink glow-up (11/12/21 Newsletter)

To: Payload Subscribers

November 12, 2021

Good morning. We have an action-packed newsletter, so there’s no time for a witty intro up top today.

In today’s newsletter: 
🚯 ISS dodges space junk 
💅 Starlink terminals get a facelift
🎙️ Not one, but two Q&As!
📚 Weekend podcast

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 How Can Earth Get More Proactive About Space Junk?

Image: NASA

Just hours after the Crew-3 launch Wednesday, the International Space Station (ISS) was forced to fire up its rockets and perform an unplanned engine burn. Roscosmos and NASA officials collaborated on the impromptu ISS reorientation. 

  • Why the maneuver? To evade a piece of space debris that was projected to get too close for comfort. 
  • Which debris? A shard of China’s former Fengyun-1C, which the nation controversially kaboomed in a 2007 anti-satellite (ASAT) test. ~3k Fengyun-1C fragments are orbiting around Earth—idle threats for operational spacecraft. 
  • ASAT, an issue that’s top of mind for the UN, is a conversation we’ll have to save for another day.  
  • Fortunately, the maneuver didn’t impact the Crew-3 mission, which docked with the ISS last night. The station and crew are in no danger. 

A pattern: The ISS has performed 29 of these evasive maneuvers since 1999, with three taking place last year alone. “Debris is getting worse!” then-NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted last September. 

Checks out. “You’re going to see these maneuvers more frequently,” Moriba Jah told Payload in an interview. Jah is an astrodynamicist, UT Austin professor, NASA JPL alum, and chief scientific adviser of Privateer, which aims to be “Waze for space.” He’s one of the world’s foremost authorities on space debris, situational awareness, object-tracking, and the like. 

Jah has been something of a Cassandra on the risks of overcrowding in space. “What really dominates our perception of risk is the uncertainty,” per Jah. At present, he said, space is a tragedy of the commons, with “no coordination or planning in how participants behave or use the resource.” 

Solutions? Jah has thoughts: 

  1. Get more eyes “on and in” the sky and merge ensuing datastreams into an accurate, all-encompassing view. “All sensors lie, each one has some bias.” You can mitigate distortions by aggregating data from each source (ie, sensor fusion).  
  2. Governments must stick to their commitments, whether international law or non-legally binding space treaties. And that includes policing national space industries. 
  3. “Recruiting empathy.” Jah, who moonlights as a science communicator, thinks the space community should try to break down walls, turn outward, and engage with the general public in non-jargony ways. A PhD shouldn’t be a prerequisite for understanding space stewardship (or caring about it).  

+ Want more? On how Jah is operationalizing his views on cleaning up space? Or how he’s one of the “three amigos tied at the hip” with Privateer cofounders Steve Wozniak and Alex Fielding?

➡️ Read the full interview here. ⬅️


 New Starlink Terminal Just Dropped

Image: SpaceX/Starlink

SpaceX has updated the Starlink suite with a new user terminal. The dish replaces a larger one sold to beta users.

Scaling down: The new terminal is a 19” x 12”, 9.2 lb dish that users can mount to the side of a home (like the older version), their roof, or a pole (new capability).

But users won’t get a price cut just yet. Starlink’s hardware set costs $499 upfront with a $99/month subscription. Users also can’t exchange current terminals for the new one, and silicon shortages are affecting production across the board.

SpaceX’s angle: The companyhas been eating some user terminal costs. When pre-orders for Starlink first opened in February, SpaceX was spending more than $2,000 to produce each terminal, subsidizing more than 75% of that cost for end users. It’s a great customer acquisition strategy, but only becomes sustainable when Starlink manufacturing starts attaining economies of scale.

  • According to an October Morgan Stanley note seen by Payload, user terminals will be the most expensive part of scaling up Starlink, representing ~83% of the total buildout costs (~$240B).
  • In April, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said the company had shaved production costs to $1,300. Eventually, SpaceX hopes to get that below $250. 
  • Meanwhile, SpaceX is continuing to build out the Starlink constellation. A new batch of satellites launched today.

+ While we’re here: Payment processor Shift4 announced a strategic partnership with Starlink this week. We chatted with Shift4 CEO Jared Isaacman (who also funded Inspiration4) about the deal. Check out the convo here


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In Other News

  • Astra (NASDAQ:ASTR) reported Q3 earnings after the bell. Highlights: GAAP net loss of ~$16M and ~$379M cash on hand. LV0007 launch will likely occur “in the coming week or so,” per CEO Chris Kemp. Astra is nearly done with LV0008 assembly and it’s started production on LV0009.
  • Virgin Orbit’s third 2021 LauncherOne mission is set to take place some time this quarter. The airplane-launched rocket’s manifest includes Pentagon R&D payloads and two nanosats from Polish startup SatRevolution. 
  • Telesat will go public next week, opening up additional funding opportunities for its proposed Lightspeed broadband network.
  • VP Kamala Harris and French president Emmanuel Macron agreed to forge closer ties in space.
  • Rocket Lab pushed back a launch of two BlackSky satellites to next Tuesday.
  • SpaceX is getting the hang of human spaceflight, Ars’s Eric Berger writes. Crew-2 returned to Earth Tuesday and Crew-3 launched Wednesday. 

🎙️ Pod Plug, Pt. 2 🎙️

Payload CEO Mo Islam went on not one but two podcasts recently. On the second leg of his pod tour, Mo joined host Prashant Bagga on the Billion Moonshots podcast. The two discuss space economy hype, angel investing, US-China strategic competition, Elon Musk, debris, and more. 

Check out the episode here—or anywhere good pods are served.


The View from Space

Image: SpaceX