The first of SpaceX’s next-generation Starlink satellites are suspiciously familiar

In a strange twist, SpaceX says its next Starlink mission will launch 54 satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO), which means they’re the same size as the V1.5 satellites already being launched — not the larger V2 or V2 Mini. satellites discussed in recent FCC filings.

However, data provided by SpaceX also shows that those 54 satellites are heading into an orbit that only matches the company’s next-generation Starlink Gen2 (V2) constellation. while SpaceX quietly pointed out That a satellite of size V1.5 I was An option for an early Gen2 launch in an add-on file in October 2022 [PDF] With the FCC, it remains unclear why SpaceX would prioritize launching V1.5-sized V2 satellites while the V1 constellation remains incomplete.

Adding to the confusion, in November 2021, CEO Elon Musk pointed out forcefully that the shortcomings of the smaller Starlink V1. from Starship. By the end of 2022. So what is the purpose of SpaceX’s imminent “Starlink G5-1” launch?

The name alone is confusing. Using the same acronym used on previous Starlink V1 launches, “G5-1” stands for the first “Group 5” launch of the constellation. The word “group” here is synonymous with “shell,” which describes a group of satellites that share the same orbital inclination (the angle at which the orbit intersects the equator) and a similar orbital elevation. Of the three SpaceX-certified towers, only one has five shells, and this shell can only exist at 97.6 degrees, not 43 degrees. SpaceX’s Gen2 constellation technically has nine missiles planned, but the FCC has only partially approved three of those, one of them at 43 degrees.

Ignoring the obtuse name, one possibility is that aspects of the Starlink V2 satellite upgrades are not explicitly related to the larger size of those satellites and could be applied to SpaceX’s first-generation Starlink constellation without the need for a modified FCC license. If SpaceX wanted to add larger satellites to its V1 constellation or change the frequency bands they use, it would almost certainly have to seek a modified license from the FCC, which could take months.

There is no evidence that SpaceX has ever done this, and any attempt that would produce public documentation. SpaceX’s mysterious launch of the Starlink G5-1 with its 43-degree inclination rules out any involvement in the V1 constellation, which only has approvals for satellites between 53 and 97.6 degrees.

Aside from the unlikely possibility that details about the Starlink 5-1 mission were somewhat incorrect or the result of a messy launch authorization process, there is at least another unlikely explanation. In October 2018, the FCC granted SpaceX permission to launch a very low Earth orbit (VLEO) constellation of 7,518 Starlink satellites with dimensions similar to the satellites that make up the constellation of 4,408 satellites the company is currently launching. After more than four years, SpaceX has yet to begin launching an approved VLEO constellation.

In November 2022, SpaceX told the FCC that it intended to combine the Starlink VLEO and Starlink Gen2 constellations by adding V-band antennas to some of the 33,000 second-generation satellites it hopes to launch — a move that would reduce the total number. For Starlink satellites SpaceX needs to be launched. Around the end of the month, the FCC partially granted SpaceX’s Starlink Gen2 license, adding unprecedentedly stringent requirements and only allowing launches of 7,500 of the planned 33,000 second-generation satellites to a limited set of inclinations (33, 43, 53). degree).

Perhaps, then, the uncertainty created by the FCC’s bizarre partial Gen2 grant caused SpaceX to change its mind about a dedicated Starlink VLEO constellation. Without the license modification, however, SpaceX’s VLEO constellation would be stuck with the same smaller (and potentially bankruptcy) satellites that its CEO believes makes the first Starlink V1 constellation unsustainable. SpaceX also has less than two years until its VLEO constellation passes its first deployment phase, at which point the company will need to launch half of it (3,759 satellites) to avoid penalties from the FCC — including the revocation of its license.

Despite the many reasons why it would not make sense for Starlink 5-1 to be SpaceX’s first Starlink VLEO launch, approximately 2,500 of SpaceX’s certified VLEO satellites were intended to operate in a 336 km (~209 mi) inclined orbit. by 42 degrees – Oddly similar to the 338-kilometer (~210 mi) orbit, the 43-degree orbit appears to be SpaceX targeting Starlink 5-1.

The sudden VLEO launch is a very unlikely explanation, but marginally stranger than the alternatives: that Starlink 5-1 is a V1-sized V2 launch with no prior mention or warning, a V1 launch into orbit that expressly violates Starlink’s SpaceX V1 FCC license, or a mistake in The paperwork is so prevalent that SpaceX distributed incorrect orbit information (which can threaten other satellites and rockets) less than two days before liftoff.

Fortunately, a final explanation—raised after this article was published—seems more likely. In response to a tweet summarizing the claims, astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell noted that SpaceX It wasIn fact, a third, smaller variant of the Starlink V2 was mentioned in an October 2022 FCC filing that fell mostly under the radar. In that filing, he told SpaceX that the FCC was developing three variants, not two. The smallest variant was said to weigh 303 kilograms and its characteristic dimensions are apparently identical to current SpaceX V1.5 satellites, which are estimated to weigh around 307 kilograms. SpaceX also stated that initial Falcon 9 launches will carry “approximately twenty to sixty satellites,” once again confirming that the V2 satellites could To be the same size and shape as Satellite V1.5.

SpaceX’s decision to develop a V1.5-sized version of the V2 satellites doesn’t make much sense in the context of Musk’s implicit claims that problems inherent to its smaller V1 satellites threaten the company’s solvency. It’s becoming ever clearer that the CEO of SpaceX may be exaggerating the fact of the matter to craft an existential threat that might encourage employees to work longer hours. Still, the development and launch of the V2 variant of satellites in size V1.5 And the Starting to launch those satellites while SpaceX’s Starlink Gen1 is more than 25% incomplete is confusing at best.

No matter what it carries or why, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to launch Starlink 5-1 is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida (CCSFS) no later than 4:40 a.m. EDT (09:40 UTC) on Wed, Dec 28.

The first of SpaceX’s “next-generation” Starlink satellites are suspiciously familiar

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