SpaceX’s second Starlink Gen2 launch will carry 56 satellites, potentially making it the heaviest payload the company has ever launched.
At 9:30 am EST, SpaceX completed a static fire of the two-stage Falcon 9 rocket assigned to launch its next Starlink mission. Half an hour later, SpaceX confirmed that the rocket performed well and is scheduled to launch no earlier than 4:32 am EST (09:32 UTC) on Thursday, January 26th. SpaceX didn’t state the mission’s purpose, but shorthand (“sl5-2”) used in an official website URL implies that it will be the second launch for its Starlink Gen2 satellite constellation.
SpaceX also reported that Starlink 5-2 will carry 56 satellites, meaning that the mission could set a new Falcon 9 payload record.
56 is not a record number of satellites for a SpaceX launch or a Starlink launch. SpaceX has launched a record 143 rideshare payloads at once, and the company routinely launched 60 Starlink satellites at a time throughout 2019, 2020, and part of 2021. But those Starlink satellites were the first versions (V1.0) of the spacecraft and weighed either 227 or 260 kilograms (500/ 570 lbs) apiece.
In the second half of 2021, SpaceX began launching new Starlink V1.5 satellites. Equipped with new laser links (optical terminals) and other general upgrades, the new satellites reportedly weigh 303, 307or 309 kilograms (668, 676, or 681 lb) each. The heavier design forced SpaceX to slightly reduce the number of satellites each launch could carry. After some optimization, SpaceX regularly launches up to 54 Starlink V1.5 satellites at a time, down from 60 V1.0 satellites.
The number of satellites may be smaller, but the mass of the payload launched has never been higher. SpaceX last broke Falcon 9’s payload mass record in August 2022, when it launched 54 Starlink V1.5 satellites for the first time. The payload reportedly weighed 16.7 tons (~36,800 lb), breaking the previous record of 16.25 tons by about 3%. The heaviest 60-satellite Starlink V1.0 payload weighed around 15.6 tons (~34,400 lb).
Now, SpaceX says it will launch 56 Starlink satellites – likely heavier V1.5 variants – at once. If SpaceX has not reduced the weight of each satellite, the payload could weigh anywhere from 16.97 to 17.3 tons (37,400-38,200 lb). Starlink 5-2 is targeting the same orbit as Starlink 5-1, which carried 54 satellites. The most likely explanation for the heavier payload appears to be another iterative improvement to Falcon 9.
As SpaceX gains confidence in and experience with Falcon 9, it has been able to tweak the timing of certain launch events, raise performance limits, and reduce certain margins. If Starlink 5-2’s Starlink satellites are unchanged, SpaceX’s tweaks will have collectively boosted Falcon 9’s performance by ~10% (15.6 to ~17 tons) in two years.
Gen1, V1.0, V1.5, Gen2, V2.0
Starlink 5-2 also continues the trend of confusion created by the company’s first Starlink Gen2 launch, which it deemed Starlink 5-1. The naming scheme implied that the satellites were a continuation of the company’s first constellation, Starlink Gen1, but SpaceX confirmed that they were actually the first Starlink Gen2 satellites. That SpaceX is launching 54 (and now 56) satellites also confirms that they are probably the same V1.5 satellites the company has been launched for 18 months.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has outright stated that the company could go bankrupt if it couldn’t start launching much larger Starlink V2.0 satellites on its Starship rocket in the near future. Instead, SpaceX is doing the exact opposite and is populating it Starlink Gen2 constellation with Gen1-sized satellites. It’s unclear when SpaceX will begin launching the larger Starlink V2.0 satellites that were meant to be the main stay of the Gen2 constellation.
Tune in below around 4:25 am EST (09:15 UTC), January 25th, to watch SpaceX’s second Starlink Gen2 launch live.