Watch a replay of our live coverage of the countdown and launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on the Starlink 6-1 mission at 6:13 p.m. EST (2313 GMT) on Feb. 27 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida. Follow us on Twitter.
SpaceX launched the first batch of next-generation Starlink internet satellites Monday from Cape Canaveral, deploying 21 bigger, heavier, more capable spacecraft to boost capacity for the global broadband network.
A Falcon 9 rocket hauled the 21 Starlink satellites into a 230-mile-high (370-kilometer) orbit after lifting off from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 6:13:50 p.m. EST (2313:50 GMT) Monday.
SpaceX delayed the launch from earlier Monday afternoon to wait for radiation levels to abate following a solar storm that sparked dramatic auroral displays visible across Northern Europe and Canada.
The new Starlink satellite design debuted on Monday’s launch, called “V2 Mini,” have four times the communications capacity of earlier generations of Starlink satellites, known as Version 1.5, SpaceX said.
The upgraded Starlink V2 Mini satellites are an intermediate step between SpaceX’s original Starlink satellite design, and an even larger spacecraft platform SpaceX plans to deploy using its new-generation Starship rocket. The Starship has nearly 10 times the payload lift capability of a Falcon 9 rocket, with greater volume for satellites, too.
SpaceX could attempt to launch the huge Starship rocket into space for the first time as soon next month from South Texas. But the program has faced developmental delays, and SpaceX decided to build miniature versions of the upgraded Starship-compatible Version 2 Starlink satellites to fly on Falcon 9 rockets.
“The V2 satellites launched on Falcon 9 are a bit smaller, so we affectionately refer to them as ‘V2 Mini’ satellites,” SpaceX said. “But don’t let the name fool you, a V2 Mini satellite has four times the capacity for serving users compared to its earlier counterparts.”
The Starlink V2 satellites will be capable of transmitting signals directly to cell phones, a step forward in connectivity from space that other companies are also pursuing. The V2 Mini satellites have more powerful phased array antennas than older Starlink satellites, and introduce E-band for backhaul links with gateway stations.
“This means Starlink can provide more bandwidth with increased reliability and connect millions of more people around the world with high-speed internet,” SpaceX said.
Unlike most of SpaceX’s Starlink missions, which place their satellites in lower-altitude transfer orbits, the Starlink 6-1 mission Monday injected the 21 V2 Mini satellites into an orbit closer to their final operating altitude, minimizing the time needed for the spacecraft to use their own propulsion to maneuver into their final orbital positions.
The Starlink V2 Mini satellites also carry an argon-fueled electrical propulsion system using Hall thrusters for on-orbit maneuvering. The new propulsion system has 2.4 times the thrust and 1.5 times the specific impulse, or fuel efficiency, of the krypton-fueled ion thrusters on the first generation of Starlink satellites.
The argon Hall thrusters were developed by SpaceX engineers, the company said, and are the first of their kind to operate in space. The electric propulsion system is highly efficient, but low thrust, generating an impulse by accelerating argon gas through the engine using electricity.
SpaceX says the argon thrusters can put out about 170 millinewtons, or about 0.04 pounds, of thrust. That’s less than the weight of a AA battery. The entire thruster unit weighs less than 5 pounds, or 2.1 kilograms
Argon gas is cheaper than the krypton fuel used on the first generation of Starlink satellites. Before the Starlink network, most electric thrusters for in-space propulsion relied on more expensive xenon gas.
Each Starlink V2 Mini satellite weighs about 1,760 pounds (800 kilograms) at launch, nearly three times heavier than the older Starlink satellites. The are also bigger in size, with a spacecraft body more than 13 feet (4.1 meters) wide, filling more of the Falcon 9 rocket’s payload fairing during launch, according to regulatory filings with the Federal Communications Commission.
Liftoff of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, launching a new generation of broadband connectivity for SpaceX’s Starlink internet network. https://t.co/iv8zvdJHak pic.twitter.com/Wg34oMqnRn
— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) February 27, 2023
Once deployed from the Falcon 9 rocket, the Starlink V2 Mini satellites will unfurl two solar array wings to a span of about 100 feet (30 meters). The original Starlink satellites each have a single solar array wing, with each spacecraft measuring about 36 feet (11 meters) end-to-end once the solar panel is extended.
The enhancements give the Starlink V2 Mini satellites a total surface area of 1,248 square feet, or 116 square meters, more than four times that of a Starlink V1.5 satellite.
The full-size Starlink V2 satellites, which will launch on the Starship rocket, will have more than double the surface area of a Starlink V2 Mini spacecraft, according to SpaceX filings with the FCC.
SpaceX added dark paint and visors to earlier Starlink satellites to reduce their reflectivity. The mitigations were installed on Starlink satellites after the first batch of spacecraft launched in 2019 were brighter than expected, raising concerns from scientists that thousands of the satellites could interfere with ground-based astronomy.
But the dark paint was not as effective as hoped, and SpaceX removed the visors from later Starlink satellites to allow them to use laser inter-satellite communications links. Ground teams also changed the orientation of the Starlink satellites to minimize reflections of sunlight that could reach the ground at twilight.
Later Starlink satellites used dielectric mirror film on spacecraft surfaces, which directs reflected sunlight away from Earth. The new generation of Starlink satellites include a combination of mirrors and a new type of low-reflectivity paint, and the solar arrays are designed to adjust their pointing when the spacecraft fly over regions of Earth at dawn and dusk.
“So, while our V2 Mini satellites are larger than earlier versions, we’re still expecting them to be as dark or darker once the full range of mitigations are implemented and the satellites reach their operational orbit,” SpaceX said in a document describing the new satellite design.
But the new larger satellites may still be “somewhat bright” immediately after launch, when they’re flying close together in a so-called “train” formation, the company said. SpaceX said measurements, modeling, and analysis show the brightness mitigations will be effective in reducing the V2 Mini satellites’ reflectivity, but engineers won’t know for sure until scientists observe the satellites after launch.
“What we learn from early observations will help us improve and refine mitigations,” SpaceX said.
“As our track record demonstrates, SpaceX will work tirelessly to refine design/manufacturing/materials and, but as our track operational mitigations and continue to work with astronomers toward reducing the brightness of our satellites,” SpaceX said.
The company said it will make the mirror film and dark paint material available at cost to other operators deploying large constellations of satellites in orbit.
Like the previous series of Starlink satellites, the upgraded V2 Mini spacecraft use an “autonomous collision avoidance system” to help avoid impacts with other objects in orbit. Collisions in low Earth orbit could generate thousands of small fragments that would exacerbate the orbital debris problem.
The new Starlink satellite design is part of SpaceX’s second-generation Starlink constellation, called Gen2.
The FCC granted SpaceX approval Dec. 1 to launch up to 7,500 of its planned 29,988-spacecraft Starlink Gen2 constellation, which is spread out into slightly different orbits than the original Starlink fleet. The regulatory agency deferred a decision on the remaining satellites SpaceX proposed for Gen2.
SpaceX began launching older-generation Starlink V1.5 satellites into the Gen2 constellation on Dec. 28. The launch Monday was the first to deploy the brand new spacecraft design.
“With the recent authorization of our second-generation network, or ‘Gen2,’ SpaceX will provide even faster speeds to more users,” SpaceX said.
The FCC previously authorized SpaceX to launch and operate up to 12,000 Starlink satellites, including roughly 4,400 first-generation Ka-band and Ku-band Starlink spacecraft that SpaceX has been launching since 2019.
The Gen2 satellites could improve Starlink coverage over lower latitude regions, and help alleviate pressure on the network from growing consumer uptake. SpaceX says the network has more than 1 million active subscribers, mostly households in areas where conventional fiber connectivity is unavailable, unreliable, or expensive.
The Starlink spacecraft beam broadband internet signals to consumers around the world, connectivity that is now available on all seven continents with testing underway at a research station in Antarctica.
SpaceX’s payload fairing jettisoned about three minutes after launch from Florida.
This rare view from the top of the Starlink payload stack shows the nose shroud falling away from the Falcon 9 rocket.
— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) February 27, 2023
With the 21 satellites launched Monday from Florida, SpaceX passed the milestone of 4,000 Starlink spacecraft launched to date, including test vehicles and prototypes no longer in service and already removed from orbit.
SpaceX will continue launching more Starlink V1.5 satellites for at least some time. A cluster of 51 Starlink V1.5 satellites is awaiting launch on another Falcon 9 rocket this week, after the Starlink launch from Florida, from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
That mission, known as Starlink 2-7, was delayed from Monday afternoon until no earlier than Tuesday. But it could face additional delays as SpaceX prioritizes the Crew-6 astronaut mission awaiting liftoff from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
NASA requires time after a Falcon 9 launch to review data before clearing a crew mission for liftoff. The extra oversight is a standard part of NASA’s human spaceflight missions. There is presumably enough time for NASA to complete a data review after the Starlink 6-1 launch Monday evening before the next Crew-6 launch attempt Thursday.
SpaceX intended to launch as many as three Falcon 9 rockets Monday — Crew-6 from Kennedy Space Center, and then two two Starlink missions. But the Crew-6 launch was scrubbed minutes before liftoff due to a problem with the rocket’s engine ignition system, and SpaceX called off the Starlink launch from California because of bad weather.
SpaceX currently has more than 3,600 functioning Starlink satellites in space, with almost 3,200 operational and roughly 400 moving into their operational orbits, according to a tabulation by Jonathan McDowell, an expert tracker of spaceflight activity and an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
The first-generation Starlink network architecture includes satellites flying a few hundred miles up, orbiting at inclinations of 97.6 degrees, 70 degrees, 53.2 degrees, and 53.0 degrees to the equator. Last year, most of SpaceX’s Starlink launches have released satellites into Shell 4, at an inclination of 53.2 degrees, after the company largely completed launches into the first 53-degree inclination shell in 2021.
The launch Monday will target one of the orbital shells for the Gen2 Starlink constellation at an inclination of 43 degrees to the equator. Launching more satellites into the lower inclination orbit will accelerate Starlink internet service over the tropics and other lower latitude regions.
For Monday’s countdown, SpaceX’s launch team was stationed inside a launch control center just south of Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. SpaceX began loading super-chilled, densified kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants into the Falcon 9 vehicle at T-minus 35 minutes.
Helium pressurant also flowed into the rocket in the last half-hour of the countdown. In the final seven minutes before liftoff, the Falcon 9’s Merlin main engines were thermally conditioned for flight through a procedure known as “chilldown.” The Falcon 9’s guidance and range safety systems were also configured for launch.
After liftoff, the Falcon 9 rocket vectored ts 1.7 million pounds of thrust — produced by nine Merlin engines — to steer southeast over the Atlantic Ocean.
The Falcon 9 rocket exceeded the speed of sound in about one minute, then shut down its nine main engines two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff. The booster stage separated from the Falcon 9’s upper stage, then fired pulses from cold gas control thrusters and extended titanium grid fins to help steer the vehicle back into the atmosphere.
A twilight touchdown on SpaceX’s drone ship northeast of the Bahamas marked the 100th consecutive successful landing of a Falcon booster.
— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) February 27, 2023
Two braking burns slowedthe rocket for landing on the drone ship “A Shortfall of Gravitas” around 400 miles (640 kilometers) downrange approximately eight-and-a-half minutes after liftoff. The reusable booster, designated B1076 in SpaceX’s inventory, launched on its third flight to space on the Starlink 6-1 mission.
The rocket’s twilight touchdown on the drone ship northeast of the Bahamas marked the 100th consecutive successful landing of a Falcon rocket booster, and the company’s 174th rocket landing overall.
The Falcon 9’s reusable payload fairing jettisoned during the second stage burn around three minutes into the flight. A recovery ship was also on station in the Atlantic to retrieve the two halves of the nose cone after they splashed down under parachutes.
Landing of the first stage on Monday’s mission occurred just as the Falcon 9’s second stage engine cut off to deliver the Starlink satellites into a preliminary parking orbit. Another upper stage burn 54 minutes into the mission reshaped the orbit at a higher altitude ahead of payload separation.
Separation of the 21 Starlink spacecraft, built by SpaceX in Redmond, Washington, from the Falcon 9 rocket was confirmed 64 minutes after liftoff.
The Falcon 9’s guidance computer aimed to deploy the satellites into an orbit at an inclination of 43 degrees to the equator, with an altitude ranging between 227 miles and 232 miles (365-by-373 kilometers). After separating from the rocket, the 21 Starlink spacecraft will extend their solar arrays and run through automated activation steps, then use their ion engines to maneuver into their operational orbit more than 300 miles (500 kilometers) above Earth.
First Starlink v2 satellites reach orbit pic.twitter.com/0l08568mJ9
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 28, 2023
ROCKET: Falcon 9 (B1076.3)
PAYLOAD: 21 Starlink V2 Mini satellites (Starlink 6-1)
LAUNCH SITE: SLC-40, Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida
LAUNCH DATE: Feb. 27, 2023
LAUNCH TIME: 6:13:50 p.m. EST (2313:50 GMT)
WEATHER FORECAST: 95% chance of acceptable weather; Low risk of upper level winds; Low risk of unfavorable conditions for booster recovery
BOOSTER RECOVERY: “A Shortfall of Gravitas” drone ship northeast of the Bahamas
LAUNCH AZIMUTH: Southeast
TARGET ORBIT: 227 miles by 232 miles (365 kilometers by 373 kilometers), 43.0 degrees inclination
- T+00:00: Liftoff
- T+01:12: Maximum aerodynamic pressure (Max-Q)
- T+02:26: First stage main engine cutoff (MECO)
- T+02:30: Stage separation
- T+02:37: Second stage engine ignition (SES 1)
- T+03:06: Fairing jettison
- T+06:08: First stage entry burn ignition (three engines)
- T+06:27: First stage entry burn cutoff
- T+07:59: First stage landing burn ignition (one engine)
- T+08:22: First stage landing
- T+08:37: Second stage engine cutoff (SECO 1)
- T+54:22: Second stage engine ignition (SES 2)
- T+54:24: Second stage engine cutoff (SECO 2)
- T+1:04:36: Starlink satellite separation
- 206th launch of a Falcon 9 rocket since 2010
- 216th launch of Falcon rocket family since 2006
- 3rd launch of Falcon 9 booster B1076
- 176th SpaceX launch from Florida’s Space Coast
- 115th Falcon 9 launch from pad 40
- 170th launch overall from pad 40
- 147th flight of a reused Falcon 9 booster
- 74th Falcon 9 launch primarily dedicated to Starlink network
- 12th Falcon 9 launch of 2023
- 13th launch by SpaceX in 2023
- 10th orbital launch attempt based out of Cape Canaveral in 2023
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