The first 2024 mission for SpaceX was a success, as the company deployed 21 Starlink satellites into low-Earth orbit on Tuesday night (January 2) using a Falcon 9 rocket. The launch took place from Space Launch Complex 4 East (SLC-4E) at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
Six of the satellites carried a new feature called direct-to-cell (DTC), which allows mobile phones to connect directly to the Starlink satellites without ground infrastructure. Elon Musk said the milestone couldn’t compete with terrestrial networks but would help plug cellular dead zones and boost global mobile connectivity.
“This launch included the first six Starlink satellites with Direct to Cell capabilities that enable mobile network operators around the world to provide seamless global access to texting, calling, and browsing wherever you may be on land, lakes, or coastal waters without changing hardware or firmware,” SpaceX wrote in a mission description.
Falcon 9’s first stage was able to come back to Earth for a vertical landing, just as planned. The landing occurred on the droneship “Of Course I Still Love You”, which was stationed in the Pacific Ocean off the California coast, about 8.5 minutes after liftoff. This was the first flight for the first-stage booster supporting this mission, according to SpaceX.
The 21 Starlink satellites separated from the Falcon 9’s upper stage and entered low Earth orbit about 62.5 minutes after launch.
The enhanced Starlink satellites have an advanced modem that acts as a cellphone tower in space, eliminating dead zones with network integration similar to a standard roaming partner.
Global cellular providers using Direct to Cell to gain reciprocal access in all partner nations include T-Mobile in the U.S., Rogers in Canada, KDDI in Japan, Optus in Australia, One NZ in New Zealand, Salt in Switzerland, and Entel in Chile and Peru.
The service, once activated, will connect with ordinary, unmodified phones without requiring extra equipment as long as they are 4G LTE-compatible.
According to T-Mobile, the majority of smartphones already on its network meet this requirement. On the other hand, Starlink has announced plans to introduce a text messaging service using this technology later in the year, followed by voice, data, and IoT services by 2025.