Table of Contents
The Starlink logo is seen on a mobile device with an grahpic illustration of planet Earth in this illustration photo in Warsaw, Poland on 21 September, 2022.
STR | Nurphoto | Getty Images
CNBC’s Investing in Space newsletter offers a view into the business of space exploration and privatization, delivered straight to your inbox. CNBC’s Michael Sheetz reports and curates the latest news, investor updates and exclusive interviews on the most important companies reaching new heights. Sign up to receive future editions.
Overview: Starlink and the growing pie in the sky
Just over two and a half years after SpaceX’s Starlink first rolled out its beta service, the satellite internet company now has more than 1.5 million subscribers. With more than 4,000 satellites operating in orbit, the Elon Musk-owned company’s global coverage is active in over 50 countries around the world.
For a tech company, that would be fairly standard growth. But by satellite broadband standards, it’s blistering. Where is it coming from?
Within the sector, it feels like Starlink overnight went from a speculative and ambitious project to conversation- and market-dominating force. With SpaceX jumping from 1 million subscribers in December to over 1.5 million five months later, I spoke with Brent Prokosh, senior affiliate consultant at France-based Euroconsult, to better understand the balance between Starlink expanding the pie of satellite broadband versus taking bites out of the slices of prior top players, such as U.S. firms Viasat and Echostar’s Hughes.
“As a general point of reference, it took Hughes a good part of eight years or so, from the 2008 to the 2015-2016 timeframe, for them to get to about a million subscribers from pretty much zero in the U.S.,” Prokosh told me. Starlink’s rise by comparison has been “spectacular,” he added.
By his estimate, “something on the order of 50% to 70%” of Starlink’s base is from “growing the pie portion, as opposed to taking” from incumbents, with Hughes and Viasat in total losing “less than 500,000 subscribers.” But those numbers change based on region and customer vertical. Prokosh pointed to the U.S., Brazil and Australia as three mini-case studies.
In the U.S., the “rural market is pretty fragmented,” he said. Starlink “introduced a service that leapfrogs the capability, although not quite the cost,” of existing satellite and terrestrial competitors. Prokosh likened it to when Hughes first rolled out its service at 1.5 Mbps back in the day, which was well above other offerings at the time.
Brazil, he noted, is the most dramatic example of Starlink taking share from incumbent satellite providers, where Starlink has added nearly the same amount of customers that Hughes has lost. It’s also lowered prices locally to about $35 a month (versus the $120 a month base in the States).
But Australia’s a different story: Prokosh said, according to the country’s reporting in March, Starlink is up to 120,000 subscribers, while the incumbent satellite service provider NBN has seen only slight customer decay from its peak of about 106,000 customers.
“This is clear evidence of the pie absolutely growing because of Starlink, as opposed to just drawing from established business of other operators,” Prokosh said of Australia.
With Starlink going after nearly every market vertical – from consumers to governments and everything in between – Prokosh noted customers are often just adding Starlink to existing options.
“In maritime … it’s almost all net growth for the industry right now, because what’s happening for the most part is that the vessels adopting the service aren’t dropping their incumbent service yet – they’re trialing Starlink,” Prokosh said.
- Virgin Orbit receives a $17 million bid from Stratolaunch to buy ‘Cosmic Girl,’ its modified 747 jet, and other aircraft assets, as bankruptcy court proceedings continue. Notably, Stratolaunch-owner Cerberus Capital Management was one of the closest to making a deal with Virgin Orbit to avoid bankruptcy, but ultimately balked. – CNBC
- NASA targeting two-year overlap between ISS and private space stations, according to the agency’s Director of Commercial Spaceflight Phil McAlister. He acknowledged that the schedule goal by the Commercial LEO Development (CLD) program “is obviously very, very aggressive,” but hopes at least one of the multiple company-led projects underway will be flying by the end of 2028 to avoid a gap in U.S. capabilities when the ISS retires in 2030. – Read more
- SpaceX makes progress with third generation of Raptor engine: In a tweet, CEO Elon Musk gave an update on testing of the new engine variation, which would further boost the power and capabilities of the company’s Starship rocket. – Musk
- Virgin Galactic targets May 25 for next spaceflight: The space tourism company plans to fly the Unity 25 mission, its first in nearly two years and planned last step before beginning commercial flights, late next week. – CNBC
- Intuitive Machines reveals delay in first lunar mission, as the company reported its first quarterly results since going public. The IM-1 mission is now scheduled to launch in the third quarter. Intuitive Machines reported Q1 revenue of $18.2 million, down slightly year over year from $18.5 million, with its operating loss growing to $14 million, from $4.5 million a year ago. The company expects to convert about $108 million of its contract backlog into revenue this year. – Intuitive Machines
- Telesat plans for Lightspeed constellation slide further, with CEO Dan Goldberg saying the Canadian company now expects to begin deploying the low Earth orbit broadband satellites in 2026, years behind schedule, as it continues to seek funding. – SpaceNews
- Space station company Vast to fly first mission with SpaceX: The startup, founded by billionaire Jed McCaleb, announced plans to fly its first space station on a Falcon 9 rocket by August 2025. The company also has a deal with SpaceX to fly a Crew Dragon mission, called Haven-1, to dock with its first module. – Vast Space
- Astroscale and Momentus bid for potential mission to raise orbit of NASA’s Hubble, with the companies teaming up on the plan to extend the life of the space telescope. – SpaceNews
- ESA successfully deploys antenna on JUICE mission, relieving worries that the spacecraft would be unable to use the stuck device as planned on the Jupiter explorer. – SpaceNews
- NASA ends ‘Lunar Flashlight’ cube satellite mission: While the mission didn’t reach the lunar South Pole as intended, the agency noted that the small satellite was able to complete several technology advances on the demonstration mission. – NASA
- Space Force sets up commercial office in Virginia: The military branch established the Commercial Space Office (COMSO) in Chantilly, Virginia, specifically to buy satellite services from the private sector. – SpaceNews
- L3Harris wins $275 million NOAA contract for satellite ground services: The defense and space giant won the contract, which runs through 2028, under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geostationary Ground Sustainment Services (GGSS) program, to support the GOES-R series of weather satellites. – NOAA
- Thales Alenia Space wins $253 million from the Italian Space Agency, to develop spacecraft for a satellite servicing demonstration in space. The company is leading a group of companies, including Leonardo, Telespazio, Avio and D-Orbit, on the effort, which aims to launch by 2026. – Thales
- Swedish Space Corporation awarded $2.4 million ESA contract. SSC’s award will be to support the development and testing of an optical satellite communications network, under the European Space Agenc’s ARTES Scylight program. – SSC
- ICEYE partners with UAE satellite companies to expand the nation’s satellite imagery capabilities. The Finnish satellite manufacturer and operator is working with the United Arab Emirates’ Bayanat and Yahsat on the program, which will develop five synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites for launch early next year. – ICEYE
- Momentus adds more SpaceX rideshare contracts, reserving spots on the three “Transporter” launches planned for 2024. – Momentous
- Astra awarded Department of Defense’s DIU contract ‘add-on’ as part of the company’s planned inaugural Rocket 4 launch. The award is additional to DIU’s existing contract with the company. – Astra
- Viasat reports fiscal year 2023 Q4 results: Revenue slipped to $666 million during the quarter, down from $702 million a year ago, with profit rising 21% year over year to $124 million on an adjusted EBITDA basis. The company heralded the launch of the ViaSat-3 Americas satellite as beginning the “next era” for the company. It plans to complete its acquisition of Inmarsat by the end of this month. – Viasat
- Terran Orbital grew revenue and trimmed losses in Q1: The spacecraft manufacturer reported it generated $28.8 million in revenue, more than doubling year over year, while decreasing its net loss to $54.4 million, down 24% from a year ago. The company had $57.4 million in cash at the end of the quarter. – Terran Orbital
- AST SpaceMobile reports Q1 results, as testing of its BlueWalker 3 satellite continues: The pre-revenue company saw its net loss increase 52% year over year, to $16.3 million. It has about $186 million in cash and equivalents on hand. After AST completed two-way call testing through BlueWalker 3, the company said it’s now moving to demonstrate it can do 4G and 5G downloads. – AST SpaceMobile
- Astra trims losses as cash runs low, with the company reducing its burn by about $8 million in the first quarter. The spacecraft engine maker and rocket developer reported a $44.9 million net loss, which was down by about half year over year, with no revenue. It has about $63 million in cash and equivalents remaining. – Astra
- Momentus also lowers losses as cash dwindles, while building out capabilities of its Vigoride delivery vehicles. The company reported a first-quarter net loss of $20.8 million, down from $26.8 million a year ago, but minimal revenue of $22,000. It has about $39 million in cash and equivalents remaining. – Momentus
- Kathy Lueders hired by SpaceX, a key hire by the company just weeks after her retirement from leading NASA’s crew programs. She was the first female human spaceflight chief for the agency, and has worked with SpaceX from the NASA side for many years. Lueders is based at Starbase as a general manager, reporting directly to President & COO Gwynne Shotwell. – CNBC
- Hinrich Woebcken joins CesiumAstro as a senior advisor: Woebcken, general partner at Trousdale Ventures and former president and CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, aims to help CesiumAstro with its air-and-space communications plan, especially “to refine its vision for connected mobility and supporting the company’s adoption of automotive mass manufacturing best practices.” – CesiumAstro
- Mustafa Veziroglu to become sole CEO of Mynaric, with Bulent Altan relinquishing his role as co-CEO and joining the company’s Supervisory Board. – Mynaric
- Thomas Krywe departing role as Spire Global CFO: The company said in a filing that Krywe decided to resign, effective Sept. 30, “to return to working with private companies.” Spire added that Krywe’s decision was not a result of a disagreement with the company, with the board beginning a search for a new CFO. – Spire
- Matthew Mejía joins SpinLaunch as CFO and Chief Strategy Officer, replacing former CFO Mel Tang who left earlier this year. Mejía joins SpinLaunch from Renaissance Strategic Advisors, after prior roles at Sierra Space and Aerion Supersonic. – SpinLaunch
- Jacqueline Yeaney named to Iridium board of directors: Yeaney was most recently EVP and CMO of Tableu Software before retiring. – Iridium
- Jeff Manber receives high NASA honors, with the agency awarding the Voyager President with the 2023 Distinguished Public Service Medal. It is NASA’s highest award for non-government employees. – Voyager
- Jim Maser, SVP of space business at Aerojet Rocketdyne, wins AIAA award: The executive was selected as a 2023 Honorary Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and elected as a member of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), which the company noted is a “top honor.” – Aerojet Rocketdyne
On the horizon
- May 19: NASA announces Sustaining Lunar Development contract in D.C., for a second crew moon lander.
- May 19: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launches Starlink satellites from Florida.
- May 19: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launches Iridium and OneWeb satellites from California.
- May 21: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon launches Axiom Ax-2 crew mission from Florida.
- May 22: Rocket Lab’s Electron launches second NASA’s TROPICS mission from New Zealand.
- May 22: Axiom’s Ax-2 mission docks with the International Space Station.