As a new decade kicks off, two space industry startups —Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit—are poised to hit key milestones that are essential for the future of their businesses. In SpaceX’s case, that’s building out the satellite internet business it plans to launch later this year, while for Virgin Orbit it means the start of commercial operations.
Next week, on January 6 or later, SpaceX is targeting the third launch of its Starlink constellation of satellites. The 60 satellites will join others in its constellation as the company aims to build out its satellite internet service. One of those satellites will be painted with a non-reflective paint, a test to see if this will prevent its satellites from interfering with astronomical observations.
The previous two Starlink launches caused controversy when light reflected off of them was brightly visible, to the detriment of certain research observations. Last month, SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell said in a meeting with reporters, “We want to make sure we do the right thing to make sure little kids can look through their telescope.”
If all goes well, the company is targeting two more launches of Starlink satellites for January/early February. The company intends to offer internet plans to regions of the U.S. and Canada once it has delivered between 6 to 8 Starlink launches to orbit, with full global coverage to be achieved after 24 launches—a total of 1,440 satellites.
Getting Starlink up and running is a key part of SpaceX’s business plan. According to Pitchbook, SpaceX has raised over $1.2 billion in venture capital over the past 12 months, growing its valuation to over $33 billion. A large chunk of that capital is geared towards building out Starlink. Elon Musk told reporters last May that revenue from the satellite internet service will provide SpaceX with the money it needs to develop Starship, the massive spacecraft the company plans to use to take cargo—and eventually people—to the Moon and Mars.
In addition to its internet service, SpaceX is also moving ahead on sending astronauts to the International Space Station later this year. The company is targeting mid-January for an in-flight abort test of its Crew Dragon spacecraft. If that test is successful, the company plans to perform its first crewed mission sometime in the first half of 2020.
Richard Branson’s startup Virgin Orbit, is also poised for major milestones in the coming weeks. The company is a spinoff of Virgin Galactic, Branson’s space tourism company that’s poised to take its first customers on suborbital space flights later this year. Virgin Orbit, however, won’t be taking people into space but satellites.
Its rocket, LauncherOne, is aimed at the small satellite market. Several rocket startups are targeting this market, but so far only one, the Los Angeles-based Rocket Lab, has successfully delivered customer satellites to orbit.
Virgin Orbit tries a different approach than its competitors. Rather than launching rockets from the ground, it will carry rockets to a high altitude attached to an airplane. The LauncherOne will take off from there, enabling it to launch with less fuel and more flexibility compared to having to lift off from a stationary launch site.
A spokesperson from the company confirmed that Virgin Orbit will perform its first orbital test flight in January. And if all goes well, the company aims to turn around and launch its first customer payload shortly thereafter, likely in February. The customer for that launch is NASA, and Virgin Orbit plans to deliver 10 small satellites from the space agency’s ELaNa project, which works with universities and high schools to put student-designed research missions into space.