Gizmodo:

AFalcon 9 rocket awaiting launch for the Starlink 7-9 mission from Vandenberg Space Force Base.
Photo: SpaceX

SpaceX is gearing up to launch the first batch of Starlink satellites with direct-to-cell capability, with plans to test the technology in Earth orbit so that it can expand its reach on Earth beyond the range of cell towers.

A total of 21 satellites will launch on board SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket at 12:09 a.m. on Friday, December 29 from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The latest batch of Starlink satellites will include six satellites with a space-based cellular broadband network to “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,” SpaceX wrote.

The space-to-cell service was originally supposed to be facilitated by SpaceX’s next generation Starlink satellites, according to Spaceflight Now. Those may take a while to get to orbit, however, as they are too big to fit on board a Falcon 9 rocket and are awaiting the completion of Starship instead.

Last week, Billionaire Elon Musk’s private space venture was granted approval to test direct-to-cell calls between Starlink satellites and regular mobile phones. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved SpaceX’s request for the new satellite technology for a duration of six months that will involve 2,000 test devices and 840 satellites using airwaves in partnership with T-Mobile, according to Bloomberg.

SpaceX isn’t the only company looking to tap into the new technology. AST SpaceMobile wants to create the first space-based cellular broadband network directly accessible by cell phones, launching a prototype satellite in September 2022 (also on board a Falcon 9 rocket) which already made the first ever 5G phone call to a Samsung Galaxy S22 using AT&T spectrum. Virginia-based Lynk Global deployed three satellites designed to deliver service from space directly to cell phones on Earth.

The FCC is working to develop a legal framework through which companies can provide satellite service directly to cell phones through existing cell carriers. The idea is to deploy cell towers in space, eliminating the need for additional hardware on the ground to carry out a call, as well as expanding cell service in dead areas outside the range of cellular towers.

Want to know more about Elon Musk’s space venture? Check out our full coverage of SpaceX’s Starship megarocket and the SpaceX Starlink internet satellite megaconstellation. And for more spaceflight in your life, follow us on X and bookmark Gizmodo’s dedicated Spaceflight page.

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MuskWire TLDR:

SpaceX is preparing to launch the first batch of Starlink satellites equipped with direct-to-cell capability. The company plans to test the technology in Earth orbit, allowing it to extend mobile network coverage beyond the reach of cell towers. The upcoming launch, known as the Starlink 7-9 mission, will carry 21 satellites on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Among the satellites onboard, six will feature a space-based cellular broadband network that aims to provide global access to texting, calling, and browsing. The initial plan was to use SpaceX’s next-generation Starlink satellites for this purpose, but those are awaiting orbit deployment via the Starship, as they are too large to fit on a Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX was recently granted approval by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to conduct tests of direct-to-cell calls between Starlink satellites and regular mobile phones, partnering with T-Mobile for the project. Other companies, such as AST SpaceMobile and Lynk Global, are also exploring space-based cellular broadband networks. The FCC is working to establish a legal framework that would enable satellite service directly to cell phones through existing carriers, eliminating the need for additional ground hardware.