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SpaceX paused Starlink launches to give its internet satellites lasers

After its June 30, 2021 launch, SpaceX paused Starlink liftoffs to add lasers to the satellites. In this photo, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Florida on Feb. 15, 2021, during a successful Starlink launch.

After its June 30, 2021 launch, SpaceX paused Starlink liftoffs to add lasers to the satellites. In this photo, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Florida on Feb. 15, 2021, during a successful Starlink launch.
(Image credit: SpaceX)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — SpaceX hasn’t launched any Starlink internet satellites since June. It turns out it’s because the company has been adding “lasers” to the spacecraft.

Since it last launched a batch of Starlink satellites to low Earth orbit on June 30, SpaceX has been quiet about what’s next for the constellation. With Starlink launches happening frequently in the first half of 2021, this pause raised questions. On Tuesday (Aug. 24), at the 36th annual Space Symposium here, SpaceX President and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell explained the break.

“We’re flying a number of laser terminals right now in space,” Shotwell said, adding that SpaceX is now working to integrate lasers into all of its Starlink satellites.

“That’s why we have been struggling for six or eight weeks — we wanted the next set to have laser terminals on them,” Shotwell said.

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These laser terminals, or laser crosslinks, were added to a batch of Starlink satellites back in January 2021. These links allow satellites to transfer information to one another and communicate in other ways as well.

With this technology, SpaceX hopes that ground stations on Earth won’t be necessary with every batch of satellites as part of the constellation. Making this change could allow satellite internet coverage to reach areas where ground stations cannot be built, Shotwell explained.

The recent launch lull won’t last much longer, however. SpaceX aims to start lofting Starlink satellites again in approximately three weeks, Shotwell said at the conference.

SpaceX continues to grow its Starlink constellation, which the company hopes will be able to provide internet service to people around the globe, even in remote areas that do not currently have reliable internet.

There are currently over 1,600 Starlink satellites in orbit, and that number will continue to grow; SpaceX has filed paperwork for up to 42,000 satellites for the constellation. But the company is actively thinking about ways to prevent collisions and to minimize risks in orbit, Shotwell said.

“The worst thing in the world is to have a collision,” Shotwell said on Tuesday, adding that Starlink employs autonomous collision avoidance technology.

Email Chelsea Gohd at cgohd@space.com or follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.

Chelsea Gohd

Chelsea Gohd joined Space.com as an intern in the summer of 2018 and returned as a Staff Writer in 2019. After receiving a B.S. in Public Health, she worked as a science communicator at the American Museum of Natural History and even wrote an installation for the museum’s permanent Hall of Meteorites. Chelsea has written for publications including Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine, Live Science, All That is Interesting, AMNH Microbe Mondays blog, The Daily Targum and Roaring Earth. When not writing, reading or following the latest space and science discoveries, Chelsea is writing music and performing as her alter ego Foxanne (@foxannemusic). You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. 

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