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  • Updated: February 28, 2023

SpaceX Launches First Set Of Second Generation Starlink Broadband Satellites [Video]

In order to increase the capacity of the worldwide broadband network, SpaceX launched the first group of 21 larger, heavier, and more capable Starlink internet satellites on Monday from Cape Canaveral.

A Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station launched the 21 Starlink satellites into a 230-mile-high (370-kilometre) orbit at 6:13:50 p.m.

After a solar storm that caused magnificent auroral displays visible over Northern Europe and Canada, SpaceX postponed the launch from earlier in the afternoon on Monday in order to wait for radiation levels to decrease.

The new Starlink satellite design debuted on Monday’s launch, called “V2 Mini,” has 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.

The massive Starship rocket could be used by SpaceX to try its first space launch as early as next month from South Texas.

Nevertheless, due to delays in the program's development, SpaceX chose to create scaled-down replicas of the improved Starship-compatible Version 2 Starlink satellites to launch 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.”

Direct signal transmission to cell phones will be possible with the Starlink V2 satellites, which is a development in space networking that other businesses are also exploring.

The V2 Mini satellites introduce E-band for backhaul links with gateway stations and have more potent phased array antennas than earlier Starlink satellites.

“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.

A Falcon 9 rocket climbs away from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station with the first 21 Starlink V2 Mini satellites. PHOTO CREDIT: SPACEX

The Starlink 6-1 mission on Monday injected the 21 V2 Mini satellites into an orbit closer to their final working height than most of SpaceX's Starlink missions, reducing the time the spacecraft needed to use their own propulsion to manoeuvre into their final orbital locations.

The Starlink V2 Mini satellites also have an electrical propulsion system powered by argon that uses Hall thrusters to steer the satellites while they are in orbit.

The krypton-fueled ion engines on the first generation of Starlink satellites have a thrust that is 2.4 times greater and a specific impulse, or fuel efficiency, that is 1.5 times greater than the new propulsion technology.

The argon Hall thrusters are the first of their kind to function in orbit, according to a statement from SpaceX engineers.

The electric propulsion system generates an impulse by accelerating argon gas through the engine with the help of electricity, yet it has a low thrust and is very effective.

According to SpaceX, the argon thrusters can produce a thrust of around 170 millinewtons or 0.04 pounds. That isn't much heavier than an AA battery.

The full thruster unit weighs 2.1 kilos or less than 5 pounds.

Compared to the krypton fuel used in the first generation of Starlink satellites, argon gas is more affordable.

The majority of electric thrusters used for in-space propulsion before the Starlink network depended on more expensive xenon gas.

Almost three times heavier than the earlier Starlink satellites, each Starlink V2 Small satellite weighs around 1,760 pounds (800 kilogrammes) at launch.

According to regulatory filings with the Federal Communications Commission, they are also greater in size, with a spacecraft body more than 13 feet (4.1 metres) broad, filling more of the payload fairing of the Falcon 9 rocket during launch.

The Starlink V2 Small satellites will spread their two solar array wings to a span of around 100 feet once they are released from the Falcon 9 rocket (30 meters).

The initial Starlink satellites each contain a single solar array wing, and when the solar panel is stretched, each spacecraft measures around 36 feet (11 metres) from end to end.

The improvements give the Starlink V2 Mini satellites a total surface area that is more than four times that of a Starlink V1.5 satellite—1,248 square feet, or 116 square metres.

According to SpaceX filings with the FCC, the full-size Starlink V2 satellites, which will launch on the Starship rocket, will have more than twice the surface area of a Starlink V2 Small spacecraft.

To lessen the reflectivity of earlier Starlink satellites, SpaceX applied black paint and visors.

As the first wave of spacecraft deployed in 2019 was brighter than anticipated, sparking fears from scientists that thousands of the satellites could interfere with ground-based astronomy, mitigations were implemented on Starlink satellites.

Nevertheless, SpaceX removed the visors from later Starlink satellites to enable them to employ laser inter-satellite communications links because the dark paint was not as successful as anticipated.

To reduce sunlight reflections that would hit the earth at dusk, ground crews also adjusted the orientation of the Starlink satellites.

The dielectric mirror material used on the surfaces of later Starlink satellites reflects sunlight away from Earth.

The solar arrays on the next generation of Starlink satellites are engineered to change their pointing when the spacecraft passes over parts of Earth at dawn and twilight.

They also feature a combination of mirrors and a new kind of low-reflectivity paint.

“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, modelling, 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.

According to the business, other operators putting big constellations of satellites into orbit will be able to purchase the mirror film and black paint material at a discounted price.

A side-by-side comparison of the Starlink V1.5 and the Starlink V2 Mini satellites. PHOTO CREDIT: SPACEX

The updated V2 Mini spacecraft feature an "autonomous collision avoidance mechanism" to help them avoid collisions with other objects in orbit, just like the earlier series of Starlink satellites.

Thousands of tiny fragments could be produced by collisions in low Earth orbit, worsening the orbital debris issue.

The second-generation Gen2 Starlink constellation, developed by SpaceX, includes the redesigned Starlink satellite design.

The Starlink Gen2 constellation, which is spread out into slightly different orbits than the original Starlink fleet and consists of 29,988 spacecraft, was approved for launch by the FCC on December 1 up to 7,500 of those spacecraft.

The regulatory body postponed making a decision regarding the last satellites SpaceX had suggested for Gen2.

On December 28, SpaceX started inserting older Starlink V1.5 satellites into the Gen2 network.

The brand-new spacecraft design was deployed for the first time on Monday's launch.

“With the recent authorization of our second-generation network, or ‘Gen2,’ SpaceX will provide even faster speeds to more users,” SpaceX said.

Up to 12,000 Starlink satellites, including around 4,400 first-generation Ka-band and Ku-band Starlink spacecraft that SpaceX has been launching since 2019, were originally certified by the FCC for launch and operation by SpaceX.

The Gen2 satellites might enhance Starlink coverage in lower latitude areas and assist ease network stress caused by rising consumer demand.

According to SpaceX, the network has more than a million active subscribers, the majority of whom are homes in places where conventional fibre connectivity is difficult, expensive, or unavailable.

Consumers may now connect to the internet on all seven continents thanks to the Starlink spaceship, with testing currently taking place at an Antarctic research outpost.

With the launch of the 21 satellites from Florida on Monday, SpaceX passed the landmark of 4,000 Starlink spacecraft deployed so far, including test vehicles and prototypes that are no longer in use and have already been deorbited.

For at least a while, SpaceX will keep launching additional Starlink V1.5 satellites.

After this week's Starlink launch from Florida, a cluster of 51 Starlink V1.5 satellites will be launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on a different Falcon 9 rocket.

The Starlink 2-7 mission was postponed from Monday afternoon to no earlier than Tuesday.

But given that SpaceX is focusing on the Crew-6 manned mission set to launch from Florida's Kennedy Space Center, there may be further delays.

Before approving a manned mission for takeoff, NASA needs time to evaluate data following a Falcon 9 launch.

A regular component of NASA's human spaceflight missions is additional oversight.

After the Starlink 6-1 launch on Monday night, NASA should have enough time to finish a data assessment before the next Crew-6 launch attempt on Thursday.

On Monday, SpaceX planned to launch up to three Falcon 9 rockets, including Crew-6 from the Kennedy Space Center and two Starlink flights.

Nevertheless, SpaceX cancelled the launch of the Starlink satellite from California due to severe weather, and the Crew-6 flight was cancelled minutes before takeoff owing to an issue with the rocket's engine ignition system.

According to a count by Jonathan McDowell, a specialist in tracking spaceflight activity and an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, SpaceX currently has more than 3,600 operational Starlink satellites in orbit, with almost 3,200 operational and roughly 400 moving into their operational orbits.

The first-generation Starlink network design consists of satellites orbiting at inclinations of 97.6 degrees, 70 degrees, 53.2 degrees, and 53.0 degrees to the equator while circling at altitudes of a few hundred miles.

After the business mainly finished flights into the first 53-degree inclination shell in 2021, the majority of SpaceX's Starlink launches last year deployed satellites into Shell 4, at an inclination of 53.2 degrees.

The Gen2 Starlink constellation's orbital shell with a 43-degree inclination to the equator is the aim of the launch on Monday.

Starlink internet service will be accelerated over the tropics and other lower latitude regions by launching more satellites into the lower inclination orbit.

The SpaceX launch team was positioned inside a launch control facility close to Cape Canaveral Space Force Station for the countdown on Monday.

At T-minus 35 seconds, SpaceX started putting super-chilled, densified kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants into the Falcon 9 vehicle.

During the final hour of the countdown, helium pressurant also poured into the rocket.

The Merlin main engines of the Falcon 9 underwent "chilldown," or thermal conditioning for flight, in the final seven minutes before liftoff.

The guidance and range safety systems aboard the Falcon 9 were also set up for takeoff.

During liftoff, the nine Merlin engines powering the Falcon 9 rocket's 1.7 million pounds of thrust were used to steer southeast over the Atlantic Ocean.

After launching, the Falcon 9 rocket ran faster than the speed of sound for roughly a minute before switching off its nine primary engines.

Upon its separation from the upper stage of the Falcon 9, the booster stage fired pulses from its cold gas control thrusters and extended titanium grid fins to assist in guiding the rocket back into the atmosphere.

Eight and a half minutes after launch, the rocket made two braking burns to slow it down for a landing on the drone ship "A Shortfall of Gravitas" around 400 miles (640 kilometres) downrange.

For the Starlink 6-1 mission, the reusable rocket, known as B1076 in SpaceX's inventory, launched on its third trip into orbit.

The rocket's dusk landing on the drone ship northeast of the Bahamas was the 174th rocket landing for the firm overall and the 100th consecutively successful landing of a Falcon rocket booster.

At three minutes into the flight, the Falcon 9's reusable payload fairing was discarded during the second stage burn.

To rescue the two nose cone parts after they splashed down under parachutes, a recovery ship was also stationed in the Atlantic.

On the Monday flight, the first stage touched down just before the second stage engine of the Falcon 9 switched off, placing the Starlink satellites into an initial parking orbit.

54 minutes into the flight, a second upper-stage fire changed the orbit's shape to one at a higher height in preparation for payload separation.

64 minutes after launch, SpaceX's 21 Starlink satellites, which were made in Redmond, Washington, were successfully separated from the Falcon 9 rocket.

The satellites were intended to be launched by the Falcon 9 into an orbit with a 43-degree inclination to the equator and an altitude between 227 and 232 miles (365-by-373 kilometres).

The 21 Starlink spacecraft will extend their solar arrays and go through automated activation procedures after disengaging from the rocket.

They will then use their ion engines to navigate into their operational orbit, which will be more than 300 miles (500 kilometres) above Earth.


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Lawrence Agbo
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