MONEY FOR MARS: Inside SpaceX's quest to make Starlink the world's top off-planet internet business

SpaceX, the aerospace company founded by tech mogul Elon Musk, wants to get you online anywhere in the world — and with broadband-like speeds — using Starlink, a next-generation fleet of internet-beaming satellites.

Musk first publicly discussed the concept in 2015, noting that a constellation of spacecraft in low-Earth orbit could provide far higher data speeds with much less lag compared to traditional geosynchronous satellite-internet service providers. Since then, SpaceX has earned permission from the Federal Communications Commission to deploy nearly 12,000 desk-size satellites by mid-2027 (though the company has plans to fly perhaps 42,000 spacecraft) and has launched more than 900 Starlink satellites into space.

With Starlink, SpaceX hopes to nab about 3% to 5% of an annual trillion-dollar global telecommunications industry, or about $30 billion to $50 billion per year, Musk has said, yet as a means to ambitious off-world ends.

"We see this as a way for SpaceX to generate revenue that can be used to develop more advanced rockets and spaceships," Musk told reporters during a May 2019 teleconference call. "We think this is a key stepping stone on the way towards establishing a self-sustaining city on Mars and a base on the moon."

SpaceX kicked off a public beta test program in the northern US and Canada in 2020, which testers have lauded (as most lacked access to high-speed internet service before Starlink). But analysts continue to probe how and whether Starlink can turn profit. Those questions occur amid growing controversies involving satellite failure rates, the potential creation of orbital debris, and ongoing impacts to astronomy.

Insider has dug up documents, received and analyzed closely held information from insiders, spoken to testers and analysts, and more in the name of getting inside an effort that could change how and where millions of people get online, all while powering Musk's Martian dream.

We've compiled a timeline, below, of select news and analysis about Starlink's evolution as a business. To help power our journalism focused on the space industry, please consider becoming a regular subscriber.

December 2020

  • SpaceX is looking to raise another big round of funding and wants to double its valuation to up to $92 billion
  • Block-by-block maps reveal where SpaceX must offer Starlink satellite internet to 642,000 homes and businesses at competitive prices
  • SpaceX just won $885 million in federal subsidies to expand Starlink, Elon Musk's satellite-internet project

November 2020

  • A Texas superintendent reveals how — and why — he got SpaceX to turn his rural school district into a Starlink satellite-internet laboratory
  • Here's how many millions of users Starlink may need to break even if it loses $2,000 for every satellite dish it sells, according to experts
  • SpaceX may shell out billions to outsource Starlink satellite-dish production, an industry insider says — and lose up to $2,000 on each one it sells

October 2020

  • SpaceX's plans for Microsoft's mobile data centers should spook Amazon — and may give a boost to YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu
  • Dozens of families in rural Texas will get SpaceX's Starlink satellite internet for free in 2021
  • SpaceX is working with Microsoft to build a satellite network that can detect the launch of nuclear weapons

September 2020

  • Elon Musk says he's planning to take his satellite internet business public in 'several years' once 'revenue growth is smooth & predictable'

July 2020

  • Code on SpaceX's Starlink website contains the first official photos of Elon Musk's 'UFO on a stick' — and key details about the satellite-internet project's test program

June 2020

  • Elon Musk says Starlink needs to drastically cut the cost of its 'UFO on a stick' terminals to steer the project clear of bankruptcy
  • SpaceX is recruiting volunteers to beta-test its new Starlink satellite internet service. Here's how to apply.

March 2020

  • SpaceX and Amazon are making huge gambles on internet satellites that just might pay off — and transform where people live and work

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