A crushing cost estimate of SpaceX's planned mega-fleet of 42,000 Starlink internet satellites glosses over a huge detail


elon musk

  • SpaceX wants to surround Earth with a vast network of internet-providing satellites called Starlink.
  • Financial analysts at Morgan Stanley Research estimated the project could grow SpaceX’s base valuation to $52 billion, possibly up to $120 billion.
  • However, SpaceX has asked to nearly triple its maximum Starlink network from 12,000 to 42,000 satellites, which would incur a major investment.
  • A new Morgan Stanley estimate suggests the 30,000 extra satellites may cost SpaceX $60 billion, but the report doesn’t even mention the rocket company’s planned low-cost rocket system, called Starship.
  • If projections from SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk pan out, the cost to launch Starlink might be half the new independent capital cost estimate.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

It’s tricky business estimating the value of SpaceX, the fast-moving rocket company founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk in 2002. The same goes for the capital costs of its ambitious projects, like Starlink: a plan to bathe Earth in high-speed internet access using a fleet of thousands of satellites.

Despite the challenges, Morgan Stanley Research took an earnest whack at SpaceX’s valuation in mid-September with an eye toward the inception of Starlink.

If the new project claims just a few percent of the global telecommunications industry and earns $30 to $50 billion a year, as Musk has said it might, the analysts figured SpaceX could grow to a $52 billion company. Or maybe anywhere between $5 billion and $120 billion, depending on the degree of its failure or success with Starlink.

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Key to that estimate, though, is the cost to build and launch Starlink satellites. As Space News reported this week, SpaceX has changed plans: The company aims to nearly triple its maximum of about 12,000 satellites to 42,000 spacecraft.

This threw a wrench into the valuation calculus, so Morgan Stanley Research on Friday emailed reporters a short update that attempts to reckon the cost of 30,000 additional Starlink satellites.

Read more: SpaceX wants to launch 5 times more spacecraft over the next decade than have ever flown in human history

Analysts now figure the capital cost associated with this change could swell to $60 billion — and that’s not including the price tag of launching the other 12,000 satellites. The figure also ignores the cost to replace all Starlink satellites every five years (something Musk told Business Insider in May during a call with reporters). Swapping satellites may add as much as $12 billion per year in capital investments, Morgan Stanley Research said.

This makes the cash cow that Starlink is supposed to be look considerably less attractive, given its hefty and ongoing projected price tag.

But this analysis assumes SpaceX would use its existing and partly reusable Falcon 9 rocket system to launch all Starlink satellites. It merely glosses over and doesn’t even name a coming and radical variable change: Starship, which is the company’ planned 387-foot-tall mega-rocket.

Financial analysts like to hedge their bets using as many reliable, real-world factors as possible. So it’s understandable they’d skip over Starship — the system may not exist for years, or at all if can’t escape the development phase.

Still, the potential cost savings with Starship are well worth considering. 

‘We’d certainly like to transition to Starship’

starship size comparison 4x3

If Starship comes to pass as Musk has envisioned it over the years, the two-part steel launch system would be fully reusable and capable of launching several times a day. That is in stark contrast to current rockets, which can take months or years to prepare for launch and only get used once, trashing untold millions’ worth of hardware per flight.

Starship may upend the traditional launch industry by not having to be replaced every launch. It’d only cost SpaceX fuel, launch support staffing, minor refurbishment, and other fairly negligible needs to lift off.

Read more: A stirring new SpaceX animation of Starship launching shows how the rocket company plans to turn Texas into Earth’s interplanetary transport hub

Morgan Stanley Research assumes Starlink would get off the ground 60 satellites at a time, as SpaceX demonstrated in May, at a cost of about $50 million per Falcon 9 launch. The estimate also assumes each Starlink satellite’s cost is about $1 million, or on par with the satellites of competitor OneWeb.

By this math, the satellites cost about $30 billion and the launch costs amount to about $25 billion (another $5 billion is likely tied to ground support).

While the update does invoke Starship, it does so obliquely and without naming it — only noting its projected cost per launch.

“This [estimate] also does not assume cost improvements to build & launch satellites, with SpaceX targeting to reduce launch costs further, to ~$5M,” the document states.

starlink satellites flat packed stack payload falcon 9 rocket spacex twitter D7THAABVUAATipLIf Starship costs $5 million to launch, which jibes with what Musk has recently said, that’s about 10 times less than a Falcon 9 launch. Asuming ground costs remain the saim, the cost to fly 30,000 satellites at 60 satellites per launch shrinks from $60 billion to around $37.5 billion — a difference of $22.5 billion.

“Starship isn’t required for this system, but we’d certainly like to transition to Starship,” Musk previously told Business Insider. “Starship, which would be a fully reusable system, and with much lower propellant costs and at a much larger scale, would dramatically improve launch costs, probably by a factor of 10 or something like that.”  

But that’s a per-rocket-launch cost comparison. It’s equally important to consider how many more Starlink satellites Starship might be able to ferry into space at once.

Starship could launch more satellites for a fraction of the cost

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Each of SpaceX’s 60 satellites launched in May weighed about 500 pounds (227 kilograms), making their total mass about 30,000 pounds (13,620 kilograms) minus any deployment mechanism. According to a new website for Starship, the vehicle could heave about 220,000 pounds (99,800 kilograms) into orbit at once, or more than seven times the first Starlink payload.

Assuming SpaceX scales up the number of Starlink satellites accordingly — and they all fit inside the nosecone of Starship — perhaps as many as 300 or 400 could launch at once. This would cut launch costs for Starlink by additional billions. (This may not be the plan, though, since Starlink satellites would be deployed to many different orbits, or planes, around Earth to ensure proper internet coverage.)

The per-satellite cost estimate may also be lower than $1 million, too. Musk said in May that “the cost of launch per satellite is already more than the cost of the satellite,” hinting mass-manufacturing costs are projected be in the realm of hundreds of thousands of dollars per satellite (not $1 million).

In any case, SpaceX is eager to have Starship — which Musk recently said could start flying within one or two years — start launching and deploying Starlink satellites.

“It’s a heck of a lot of launches. We’ll hopefully have Starship active if we’re anywhere near 12,000 satellites,” Musk said in May. “For the system to be economically viable, it’s really on the order of 1,000 satellites. If we’re putting a lot more satellites than that in orbit, that’s actually a very good thing, it means there’s a lot of demand for the system.”

SpaceX did not acknowledge several requests for information and comment from Business Insider.

Correction: A previous version of this story did not account for the estimated cost of satellites. We regret the error and its comical irony.

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