SpaceX has a plan to launch up to 4K satellites to provide global Internet access. Is there a reasonable estimate of how much this constellation would cost to launch? Also, as the minimum number of satellites to start the service is 800, what is that cost?
First of all, let's figure out how many satellites per launch vehicle. The estimate of the mass of these satellites is 386 kg. The mass for a launch of a Falcon 9 is 5500 kg. That means one could launch 13-14 satellites per rocket. I suspect 12 is more realistic, because part of the payload mass is the structure to mount all of the satellites, and that is the number that I will assume for future calculations. Let's assume reusability is done heavily, reducing the cost per launch to, say, \$12 million, less than 20% of the actual cost. That comes to about \$1 million per satellite launched for the launch cost.
As for the satellites themselves, I suspect that with that many satellites being produced, they could do it for around \$1 million per satellite, possibly even lower cost as time goes on.
Bottom line, a very generous estimate is \$2 million per satellite. Thus, the cost to launch the initial 800 satellites is about \$1.6 billion, plus R&D. The full constellation would be \$8 billion, plus R&D.
Also note that I'm probably a bit underestimating some of these costs. The more industry standard cost (Subtracting estimated profits) would be \$36 million per launch , \$10-15 million per satellite. Let's say \$5 million per satellite manufactured, which should be possible with that economy of scale. Thus, the cost could be as much as \$8 million per satellite, increasing the cost by a factor of 4x. But that would be the highest cost that I could see.
For reference, the comparable satellites in recent history. I suspect the closer comparison for a SpaceX satellite to be the Irridium constellation.
- Irridium- \$2.1 billion to manufacture 66 satellites, or \$32 million/ satellite.
- Orbcomm- \$117 million for 18 satellites, or \$6.5 million.
Also note that a fair amount of ground stations would be required to get this to work. Add in the R&D, licenses, etc, and I suspect the ground costs are \$1- \$2 billion.
Bottom line, SpaceX could hit US internet availability with somewhere between \$3.6 to \$8.4 billion, and have the entire constellation launched for between \$10 to \$37 billion.