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After a brief pause, and as it waits for government agencies to clear the Starship launch pad for future launches, SpaceX has resumed its Starlink launches with the Falcon 9 rocket once again. The firm launched its latest batch of second-generation Starlink satellites from California earlier today, and it plans to follow it up with an evening launch from the Cape in Florida. The latest batch of launches is rather unique since they feature the highest number of new satellites that SpaceX has launched to date.
SpaceX’s Latest Starlink Launches Hint At Potential Upgrades To Falcon 9 Rocket
SpaceX’s latest Starlink launches are quite different from the ones that marked the start of the constellation’s build out. The early days often featured 60 Starlink satellites per launch, enabling SpaceX to rapidly build out its constellation of thousands of small internet satellites. However, since the three years that Starlink has been operating, the satellites and user requirements have changed, forcing SpaceX to upgrade its internet network.
Additionally, SpaceX made a big bet on the Starship rocket by pegging its second generation satellites with the super heavy lift rocket. Starship is the world’s largest rocket in terms of payload, and SpaceX’s second generation satellites are also significantly larger than their predecessors – making the two a perfect fit.
However, Starship is currently grounded as officials from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) continue evaluating the Boca Chica launch pad for another launch test. As a result, SpaceX has been forced to rely on the Falcon 9 for its second generation Starlink satellites, which has limited the firm’s ability to launch as many satellites to low Earth orbit (LEO) as it could with the larger rocket.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) October 29, 2023
The first generation Starlink satellites were followed by Gen 1.5 satellites, which reduced the number of satellites launched per Falcon 9 to roughly 54 from the earlier 60. Then, SpaceX upgraded the satellites once again, and the Gen 2 satellites saw the number of satellites further drop from 54 to 21-22.
Today’s Falcon 9 launch is the first of two that are planned from the eastern and western coasts of the U.S. The rocket took off from the Vandenberg Space Force Station in California early morning local time with a batch of 22 Starlink satellites to LEO. SpaceX confirmed soon after the launch that the satellites had been deployed, and as of the time of publishing, the firm is committed to a Starlink launch from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. Its Falcon 9 rocket for the California launch seems dedicated to Starlink missions since it has six Starlink batches and a Space Development Agency satellite.
According to SpaceX, the upcoming Starlink launch will fly a batch of 23 satellites. This will be the second time that the Falcon 9 has flown this number of second generation satellites, with the first flight taking place earlier this month on the 22nd. The changes that have enabled it to launch an additional Starlink satellite with the Falcon 9 are uncertain since SpaceX’s latest live streams on X (formerly Twitter) provide few payload weight or performance details.
SpaceX set a new record with the Falcon 9 in January when it launched a Starlink payload weighing 17,400 kilograms. This launch was for the Starlink v1.5 satellites, and since then, SpaceX has made several upgrades to the Falcon 9. It revealed one such upgrade in May, outlining that performance upgrades to the Falcon 9 enabled it to land the rocket on land for all future crewed missions.
Landing a first stage rocket booster requires engineers to leave some fuel in the tank for firing up the engines for the boost back and landing burns. A land landing, which typically requires a rocket to travel further, also needs more fuel, and performance margin upgrades enable the Falcon 9 to squeeze out more performance from a similar amount of fuel.