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A stack of Starlink internet satellites just before a launch.
SpaceX is manufacturing its Starlink satellites at an unprecedented rate for the space industry, analysts say, as the company dives headlong into building a space-based global internet service.
Elon Musk’s company told the Federal Communications Commission in a presentation last month that its Starlink unit is “now building 120 satellites per month” and has “invested over $70 million developing and producing thousands of consumer user terminals per month.”
“Invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Starlink to date,” the SpaceX presentation added.
A slide from SpaceX’s July 2020 presentation to the FCC.
Starlink is SpaceX’s ambitious plan to build an interconnected network of about 12,000 small satellites, to beam high-speed internet from orbit to anywhere in the world. The company has so far launched nearly 600 Starlink satellites and is currently building a system of ground stations and user terminals, to connect consumers directly to its network.
It’s difficult to contextualize what SpaceX’s satellite production rate means given the difference in size and complexity of spacecraft built by other companies. But Quilty Analytics founder Chris Quilty told CNBC that Starlink manufacturing is happening at a speed never before seen in the satellite sector. Quilty’s boutique research and investment firm focuses on the satellite communications sector, which he founded after leading Raymond James’ coverage of the space industry for 20 years.
“To put it in perspective, Iridium, which previously held the record for the largest commercial satellite constellation, was manufacturing satellites at the rate of about six satellites per month at the peak of production,” Quilty said.
Iridium’s NEXT satellites are nearly three times the mass of a Starlink satellite, at about 670 kilograms versus an estimated 260 kilograms. But, even with the caveat that each Starlink is smaller than an Iridium satellite, SpaceX is building its spacecraft 20 times as fast.
Notably, Quilty pointed out that Iridium’s satellites were built by European aerospace conglomerate Thales Alenia Space. Additionally, rival satellite internet startup OneWeb was building satellites at a rate of about 30 per month before it went bankrupt — and Quilty highlighted that OneWeb’s production line was designed and built in collaboration with Airbus, another European aerospace giant. That makes Starlink the only of the three with satellites built solely by a U.S. firm, as well as the most productive.
“American ingenuity wins again,” Quilty said.
On the customer side, SpaceX last week told the FCC that is already seeing “extraordinary demand” from people interested in Starlink’s internet service. The company said “nearly 700,000 individuals” across the United States said they were interested in the service, causing SpaceX to request that the FCC increase the number of authorized user terminals to 5 million from 1 million.
Right now it seems the primary bottleneck for Starlink’s service lies in how quickly SpaceX can launch the satellites, according to industry analytics firm Bryce Space and Technology. The company has been launching Starlink missions about once per month with its Falcon 9 rocket fleet.
“At 60 satellites per Falcon 9, SpaceX is also driven to bring its Starship launch vehicle online as soon as it can, as the company says each will be able to carry 400 Starlink satellites at a time,” Bryce senior space analyst Phil Smith told CNBC.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying 60 Starlink satellites on November 11, 2019 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Starlink constellation will eventually consist of thousands of satellites designed to provide world wide high-speed internet service.
Paul Hennessy | NurPhoto | Getty Images
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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. manufacturing activity eased off an 11-year low in May, the strongest sign yet that the worst of the economic downturn was behind as businesses reopen, though the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis could take years because of high unemployment.
FILE PHOTO: A worker disinfects machinery with a bleach mixture at the start of a shift at Green Circuits as the company, an essential business, adapts to operating during the outbreak of the fast-spreading coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in San Jose, California, U.S., April 2, 2020. REUTERS/Stephen Lam/File Photo
The promising signs of stabilization in manufacturing reported by the Institute for Supply Management on Monday are a welcome respite as the country braces for data on Friday expected to show the worst unemployment rate since World War Two. Rampant joblessness will lead to tepid demand and economic growth.
“Today’s report on the manufacturing sector represents good news that hints the economy is turning the corner as the states reopened in May,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York. “It will not be a quick recovery for sure, but at least the worst is over.”
The ISM said its index of national factory activity rose to a reading of 43.1 last month from 41.5 in April, which was the lowest level since April 2009. A reading below 50 indicates contraction in manufacturing, which accounts for 11% of the U.S. economy. May marked the third straight monthly contraction.
Still, the first increase in the ISM index since January mirrored improvements in regional manufacturing surveys in May and suggested April was the nadir for economic activity. A survey on Monday from data firm IHS Markit also showed stabilization in manufacturing conditions in May.
The ISM also viewed May as the “transition month,” but cautioned that “demand remains uncertain.”
The improvement was not uniform. Disruptions to the supply chain and social distancing are limiting transportation equipment manufacturers’ ability to restart production. Food, beverage and tobacco industries were overwhelmed, nothing that increased demand “stressed our production capabilities.”
The ISM’s forward-looking new orders sub-index rose to a reading of 31.8 in May from 27.1 in April, which was the lowest since December 2008. Despite the slight improvement last month, new orders at current levels suggest business investment could continue to shrink. The COVID-19 crisis has undercut corporate profits, which declined in the first quarter at rates last seen during the 2007-09 Great Recession. Business investment has contracted for four straight quarters.
Stocks on Wall Street were higher, though caution reigned amid country-wide protests over race relations and a flare-up in tensions between Washington and Beijing. The dollar fell against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices slipped.
The economy contracted at a 5% annualized rate in the first quarter, the worst performance since the 2007-09 recession. Gross domestic product is expected to decline at a rate as sharp as 40% in the second quarter, which would be the biggest contraction in output since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The ISM’s measure of factory employment advanced to a reading of 32.1 in May after plunging to 27.5 in the prior month, which was the lowest since February 1949.
About 21.4 million jobs were lost in March and April. The Labor Department is expected to report on Friday that at least another 8 million were lost in May, with the unemployment rate rocketing to 19.7%, according to a Reuters survey of economists. That would be the highest since the government started tracking the series in 1948, and up from 14.7% in April.
“Manufacturers are being squeezed by both a collapse in demand and disrupted supply chains,” said James Knightley, chief international economist at ING in New York. “With profitability under immense pressure firms are increasingly looking to cut costs, which will limit the ability of the U.S. economy to rebound quickly.”
A separate report from the Commerce Department on Monday showed construction spending dropped 2.9% in April, the largest decrease since October 2018, after being unchanged in March.
Economists had forecast construction spending declining 6.5% in April. The construction sector has fared better than other segments of the economy as some large projects were likely put in place months before the COVID-19 pandemic.
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In addition, many states regarded the industry as essential business, when restaurants and other social gathering venues were shuttered in mid-March to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The industry is also being supported by near record low interest rates. In April, spending on private sector construction projects dropped 3.0%. Outlays on homebuilding tumbled 4.5%. Spending on nonresidential structures, which include manufacturing plant and mining exploration, shafts and wells, decreased 1.3%. Investment in public construction projects fell 2.5% in April.
“Construction spending can be a somewhat lagging indicator, as outlays each month in part reflect projects started in prior months,” said Nancy Vanden Houten, a senior U.S. economist at Oxford Economics in New York.
Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Andrea Ricci