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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?

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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.

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  • $\begingroup$ (1) What if we factor in Falcon heavy (assuming its a big success)? Would that reduce the cost? According to the wiki the constellation wont begin until 2020, so the heavy should have itself proved by then. (2) Also worth considering that at 12 satellites per launch it would take over 330 launches and the chances of getting 330 launches without issue is.... low. $\endgroup$ – Reinstate Monica Feb 27 '17 at 18:11
  • $\begingroup$ The list mass for a Falcon Heavy is 8,000 kg. It wouldn't reduce the cost per satellite launched considerably, but they haven't announced reusable costs with the Falcon Heavy, so... Bottom line, it might be a slight drop. $\endgroup$ – PearsonArtPhoto Feb 27 '17 at 19:46
  • $\begingroup$ That's a lot of numbers and only one source. Would you mind adding more for bonus credibility? $\endgroup$ – Mast Feb 27 '17 at 19:48
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    $\begingroup$ 5.5tons is the F9's payload to geosynchronous orbit, it can lift 9.6 tons to LEO where the proposed constellation would operate. Assuming they don't run out of volume first, that's room for 20 or 24 satellites per launch. $\endgroup$ – Dan Neely Feb 27 '17 at 20:35
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    $\begingroup$ Note that, based on SPACEX NON-GEOSTATIONARY SATELLITE SYSTEM / ATTACHMENT A, the satellites will be in orbital inclinations between 53 and 81 degrees. I'm not sure where you got the 5.5 tons of payload to LEO for a reusable launch, but per the 2009 Falcon 9 User's Guide, a 52 degree launch to 1200 km has a payload reduction of about 6.3% vs a Cape launch, while an 80 degree launch has a 15% reduction. [Continued] $\endgroup$ – Larkeith Feb 28 '17 at 7:24

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