SpaceX test-fires rocket ahead of launch of third batch of Starlink satellites

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In a time exposure, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches from Cape Canaveral, as seen from Viera, Fla., late Monday, Jan. 6, 2020.

It will take about an hour for the Falcon 9 rocket to deliver the third batch of Starlink satellites to orbit a couple of hundred miles above Earth. The company landed the first-stage booster (the vehicle's fourth flight and landing) on its Atlantic Ocean drone ship, but failed in its attempt to catch a payload fairing half (which costs roughly $3 million). SpaceX will operate a constellation of around 180 satellites (some of the original batch are no longer in operation), which is the most in active use by any private satellite operator now in business.

For perspective, only about 2,000 operational satellites now circle Earth, and humanity has launched fewer than 9,000 craft since the dawn of the Space Age, according to the U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs.

While satellite internet has been around for a while, it has suffered from high latency and unreliable connections.

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Musk hopes eventually to control up to 5% of the global internet market - a share valued at $30 billion a year, or 10 times what SpaceX is earning from its space launches, and plough the profits back into rocket and spaceship development.

Elon Musk had revealed how SpaceX will need at least 400 Starlink satellites in orbit to offer "minor" broadband coverage, and at least 800 to provide "moderate" coverage.

Tonight's liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida came at 9:19 p.m. ET (6:19 p.m. PT), marking the first orbital launch of 2020. Both Amazon and OneWeb have similar ambitions, for example, though their envisioned constellations will be much smaller than SpaceX's. For instance, Patricia Cooper, SpaceX's vice president of satellite government affairs, is presenting a paper during the special AAS session on Wednesday.

Jeff Hall, director of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, said the Starlinks have been just an occasional problem so far but noted the risk to stargazing will grow as the constellation expands and other companies launch their own fleets. Initially, Starlink will aim to provide service in the US and Canada by the end of 2020, with as many as 20 more launches of similarly sized batches of Starlink satellites to take place over the course of the year.

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