SpaceX has launched its first somewhat experimental batch of 54 second generation (GEN2) Starlink Block v2.0 satellites into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), which may include a number of improvements to hopefully boost broadband speeds (capacity), coverage, network reliability and deliver mobile phone services from space.
Customers in the UK typically pay from £75 per month, plus £460 for the regular home kit (standard dish, router etc.) and £40 for shipping on the ‘Standard‘ Starlink package, which gets you unlimited usage, fast latency times of 25-50ms, advertised downloads of c. 50-200Mbps and uploads of c.5-15Mbps (speeds may change as the network grows).
The latest launch means that Starlink now has around 3,370 LEO satellites in orbit around the Earth (altitude of c. 500km+) and their initial plan is to deploy a total of roughly 4,400 by 2024, with approval already granted to add around 7,500 more to this by the end of 2027.
However, we don’t routinely report on new Starlink launches, unless there’s something unique about them. In this case, the latest launch is interesting because it appears to carry an experimental batch of second generation (GEN2 or Block v2.0) satellites. We say experimental because these aren’t quite the v2.0 satellites we were expecting, but they do include some of the planned enhancements in a trial form.
The original plan for the next generation satellites was that they’d be much bigger and heavier (7 metres long [unfolded] and weighing 1,250kg) than GEN1 and include various enhancements, such as lasers for inter-satellite links (these appeared on some GEN1s), the ability to use much more spectrum bandwidth (e.g. the V-band), further reductions in brightness (e.g. deployment of dielectric mirror film), a much larger antenna, twin solar array for more power and support for connecting modern 4G and 5G smartphones to voice and data (mobile broadband) connectivity from space (here).
The catch with this is that SpaceX would have only been able to launch their GEN2 LEOs – in an economically viable way – aboard their future Starship rocket, which still isn’t ready. Until then, the company decided to adapt their GEN2s to adopt a smaller form factor (Bus F9-1) and, from what we can tell, the latest platforms are indeed closer to GEN1s in form than GEN2s (e.g. they only weigh a shade over 300kg each). This means they can be launched aboard the company’s venerable Falcon9 rockets, which is what happened yesterday.
At the time of writing, SpaceX still hasn’t said precisely which GEN2 specific features and capabilities are being tested on this experimental batch of Starlinks, but it has been said that they will include some enhancements from the company’s prior acquisition of SWARM Technologies (here). SWARM was developing tiny pico satellites (0.25U CubeSat) for connecting small Internet of Things (IoT) devices, such as agricultural sensors, buoys at sea and smart energy meters etc.
However, it’s clear that all the promised benefits from GEN2 simply won’t be possible in such a small GEN1 style package, thus SpaceX is also known to be preparing an intermediate form factor – sometimes called “v2 mini” (Bus F9-2) – that will weigh around 800kg (4.1 metres by 2.7 metres) and deliver many of the expected benefits, particularly in terms of significantly improved bandwidth.
The Revised GEN2 Form Factors
Bus F9-1 – similar to GEN1, albeit with some GEN2 features (c. 300kg)
Bus F9-2 (“V2 mini“) – adds more solar and bandwidth etc. (c. 800kg)
Bus Starship – the big full-featured GEN2 (possibly up to 2,000kg)
In short, while SpaceX may be referring to this launch as containing their Block v2.0 (GEN2) satellites, just be aware that it’s not quite what it seems and these are more akin to testing platforms for GEN2 – ones that don’t yet carry all the GEN2 features in a single cohesive package.