SpaceX, the leading private space company in the world, has achieved another milestone in its ambitious quest to provide global internet access through its Starlink constellation. On Thursday, August 31, 2023, SpaceX launched its 60th orbital mission of the year, sending 22 Starlink V2 Mini satellites into low Earth orbit from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. This was the first batch of a new generation of Starlink satellites that will operate in a higher orbital shell and offer improved performance and coverage. With this launch and another one scheduled for Friday from California, SpaceX is on the verge of breaking its own record of 61 orbital launches in a year, which it set in 2022.
A New Generation of Starlink Satellites
The Starlink V2 Mini satellites are part of SpaceX’s second-generation Starlink network, which the company plans to launch on its new Starship mega-rocket in the future. The Starship, which is still under development and testing, will be able to carry up to 400 Starlink satellites at a time, compared to the Falcon 9 rocket’s capacity of 60. The Starship will also be able to launch the larger and more powerful Starlink Gen2 satellites, which will be capable of transmitting signals directly to cell phones and other devices without requiring a user terminal.
However, since the Starship’s first orbital test flight is still pending regulatory approval and environmental review, SpaceX has decided to start launching the Gen2 satellites on the Falcon 9 rocket. According to Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, the company has developed a miniature version of the Gen2 satellites that can fit on the Falcon 9 rocket. The Starlink V2 Mini satellites are similar in size to the existing Starlink V1 satellites, but have upgraded features and capabilities.
The Starlink V2 Mini satellites will operate in a higher orbital shell than the Starlink V1 satellites, at an altitude of about 650 kilometers (403 miles), compared to 550 kilometers (342 miles) for the V1 satellites. This will allow them to cover more area and serve more customers with fewer satellites. The higher orbit will also reduce the risk of space debris and orbital congestion, as the satellites will have a shorter lifespan and will deorbit faster than the lower-orbiting ones.
The Starlink V2 Mini satellites will also have improved antennas and lasers that will enable them to communicate with each other and with ground stations more efficiently and reliably. The inter-satellite links will allow the Starlink network to operate as a mesh network, bypassing terrestrial infrastructure and reducing latency and interference. The ground stations will provide connectivity to the internet backbone and enable seamless handovers between different satellites.
A Record-Breaking Year for SpaceX
The launch of the Starlink V2 Mini satellites was SpaceX’s 60th orbital mission of the year, marking a remarkable achievement for the company that dominates the global launch market. According to analytics firm BryceTech, SpaceX launched 43 orbital missions in the first two quarters of the year, accounting for nearly half of all launches worldwide. SpaceX also launched more than ten times as much payload mass as its closest competitor, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC).
SpaceX was poised to tie its 2022 launch record with another mission from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California that was scheduled for Thursday morning. However, an engine issue with one of the Falcon 9’s Merlin engines delayed the launch until Friday. The mission will carry an Israeli Earth-imaging satellite called Ofek-17 for the Israel Ministry of Defense.
If SpaceX succeeds in launching both missions this week, it will break its own record of 61 orbital launches in a year, which it set in 2022. SpaceX has several more launches planned for the rest of the year, including more Starlink missions, crew and cargo missions to the International Space Station, national security missions for the U.S. government, and commercial missions for various customers.
SpaceX’s impressive launch cadence is enabled by its reusable rocket technology, which allows it to recover and reuse its Falcon 9 boosters multiple times. The booster that launched the Starlink V2 Mini satellites on Thursday was making its eighth flight, having previously flown six Starlink missions and one Transporter-2 rideshare mission. The booster landed on a drone ship named A Shortfall of Gravitas in the Atlantic Ocean after delivering its payload to orbit.
SpaceX also recovers and reuses its payload fairings, which are the nose cones that protect the satellites during launch. The fairings that flew on Thursday were previously used on two other Starlink missions. SpaceX has two ships equipped with giant nets that catch the fairings as they fall back to Earth under parachutes.
A Global Internet Service Provider
SpaceX’s ultimate goal with its Starlink constellation is to provide high-speed, low-latency, and affordable internet access to anyone anywhere on Earth. The company has already launched more than 1,800 Starlink satellites, making it the largest satellite operator in the world. The company has also started offering beta service to customers in select regions, including the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Germany, France, Australia, and New Zealand.
SpaceX claims that its Starlink service can deliver speeds of up to 150 megabits per second and latency of around 20 milliseconds, which is comparable to or better than most terrestrial broadband services. The company also says that its service will improve as it launches more satellites and upgrades its network. SpaceX plans to eventually launch tens of thousands of Starlink satellites to cover the entire globe and serve millions of customers.
To access the Starlink service, customers need to purchase a user terminal kit from SpaceX, which costs $499 and includes a small dish antenna, a Wi-Fi router, a power supply, and cables. The kit is designed to be easy to install and operate, requiring only a clear view of the sky and a power outlet. The service costs $99 per month, with no data caps or contracts.
SpaceX faces competition from other companies that are also developing satellite internet constellations, such as OneWeb, Amazon’s Kuiper, and Telesat’s Lightspeed. However, SpaceX has a significant advantage in terms of its launch capability, its network size, and its customer base. SpaceX also has ambitions to use its Starlink network for other applications, such as providing connectivity to airplanes, ships, cars, and even Mars.
SpaceX’s Starlink project is not only a business venture, but also a vision for the future of humanity. As Musk has said, “Starlink is really intended to do good things for the world.”