It’s finished ! 21 next-generation Starlink satellites have been sent into space aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. What’s changing? And above all: what does it mean for users? Let’s check in.
Starlink is one of the offers and even the most attractive offer on the market if you do not have access to fiber or other high-speed connections. SpaceX has invested so much money into this project that they have gained a significant advantage over competing bids.
As a reminder, Starlink is a satellite constellation project developed and implemented by SpaceX, a company founded by Elon Musk. The aim of this project is to provide fast internet access worldwide, even in the most remote areas where terrestrial connections are not available or of insufficient quality.
Specifically, Starlink consists of a fleet of thousands of small satellites in low orbit (about 550 km altitude), which transmit Internet signals to terrestrial antennas installed in users’ homes. The satellites communicate with each other using laser links, allowing data to be transferred at very high speeds.
The implementation of Starlink consists of several phases. In the end, we are talking about 40,000 satellites above our heads. In 2009, 100 satellites were put into orbit, which means 800 to 1000 satellites that will be deployed every year between 2020 and 2022. By mid-May 2022, SpaceX had already launched 2,600 satellites, of which 2,350 are still in orbit and 2,320 are operational. This fleet represents more than a third of the approximately 6,000 artificial satellites in orbit at the time and two-thirds of the US satellites.
The offer has been available in France since February 2021, for 50 euros per month for individuals, in addition to an initial investment of 450 euros in the necessary equipment. This offer enables download speeds of 50 to 500 Mbit/s (downlink speed) and a latency of 20 to 40 ms, without limiting data consumption. Naturally, this depends on the quality of the environment, but also on the number of satellites deployed. These performances are therefore constantly evolving as the launches take place.
Before talking about the new generation of satellites, let’s talk about the current state of affairs. The vast majority of satellites that provide internet access are located 36,000 kilometers above our heads, which limits the performance of data transfer rates and latency. SpaceX has opted for a low orbit, we are talking about an altitude between 540 and 570 kilometers. These satellites broadcast in the Ku and Ka bands, the first versions were very light, weighing between 227 and 290 kilograms.
What are the second generation Starlink satellites?
The first 21 second-generation Starlink satellites were launched on February 28, 2023. Initially, they were to be carried by the massive Starship, but plans have changed, as this rocket is not yet available.
Therefore, a smaller version of the Starlink 2 satellites was developed to be carried by the Falcon 9 rocket. Note that this mini-edition is still much larger than the first generation. The Falcon 9 can no longer carry 60 first-generation satellites, but about twenty.
The first Starlink v2 reaches satellites in orbit pic.twitter.com/0l08568mJ9
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 28, 2023
The satellites, which are about twice as heavy (about 790 kg), should be able to offer four times the data speed of the first generations. E-band antennas must then be used, operating in the 71-79 GHz and 81-86 GHz frequency bands. As a reminder, the first generation of satellites operate primarily in the Ku and Ka bands, but also use optical laser links for communication between satellites. This will also be the case with the second generation.
The greater weight of this generation is mainly due to the Hall effect electric motors of the satellites, which are also larger and more powerful. At 170 mN they have 2.4 times the thrust of the old engines. Mainly, they will work with argon for the first time, the third most abundant gas in the Earth’s atmosphere after nitrogen and oxygen. Until now, SpaceX has used krypton as fuel (and precisely as gaseous propellants), which only accounts for about 0.0001% of Earth’s atmosphere.
There is no longer any fear of an argon shortage, which is a good thing. Incidentally, before Starlink, almost all electric motors on satellites ran on xenon, a rare and expensive gas, a particularly large amount of which can be transported in pressurized tanks due to its high atomic weight. However, with an expected constellation of more than 40,000 satellites, SpaceX was in danger of overwhelming the noble gas and noble gas market. We no longer fear shortages with argon, but at the same pressure a tank can only be filled with half as much argon as with krypton. However, the lower amount of fuel is partially offset by 50% better fuel efficiency.
To date, 7,500 Starlink-2 satellites have been approved for launch. Just like the first generation SpaceX will also try to reduce the brightness of satellites from Earth. How ? Many of the satellites are covered with mirrors designed to reflect light. On all other surfaces, Starlink uses black, which reduces light reflection. Hopefully this will eventually remove the trail of satellites seen at night.
These satellites will also offer Gen2 Starlink an antenna of approximately 25 square meters satellite communication via smartphones, as well as other mobile devices, as well as vehicles (such as cars). The iPhone 14 already offers this type of (emergency) connection and Qualcomm has also announced that it will offer this in its future SoC, so that many Android smartphones will have access to this capacity. In addition, the feature is theoretically already present on all smartphones equipped with a Snapdragon 8 Gen 2, Qualcomm’s new high-end chip.