SpaceX’s upcoming Starship orbital test flight could end up being a veritable smorgasbord of its technological capabilities, as the company has filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to request approval to fly Starlink terminals on the spacecraft in order to “demonstrate high data rate communications” between the new launch system and the ground throughout the course of the trip to space and back.
SpaceX plans to show that its network of Starlink low-Earth orbit satellites can provide “unprecedented volumes of telemetry and enable communications during atmospheric reentry” even during the parts of the launch where communications signals are typically lost due to the presence of “ionized plasma” in the atmosphere during the re-entry phase (via Michael Baylor on Twitter). If it works, it could provide better than ever live data for SpaceX during its test flight, which should help with the Starship and Super Heavy launch system’s development — and it could mean better, more spectacular views for those of us just watching from home via livestream, too.
Including Starlink as the communications method for telemetry and other communications during the launch is definitely a functional improvement for SpaceX if it works as described, but it’s even more of a flex for the company in terms of showing off Starlink’s capabilities. The FCC filing notes that the terminals to be installed on the spacecraft are basically just its existing consumer terminals with new exterior housings, so if it performs well that could attract the attention of more consumer broadband customers.
Plus, SpaceX is also talking a lot about the capabilities of Starlink as a system to replace older, more distant geostationary satellites networks to provide things like connectivity on airplanes, on ships and in other in other transportation modals. Showing that it offers solid performance during a rocket launch is definitely going to encourage partners in those areas.
The filing does specify that its license to operate Starlink on Starship begins on August 1, which means either it’s planned for a launch after the one SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said the company is hoping to fly sometime in July, or the date has already likely slipped to the following month.