SpaceX deploys a new generation of Starlink satellites, what will change for users

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It’s done ! 21 next-generation Starlink satellites have been launched into space aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. What’s changing? And, above all, what will it bring to users? Let’s do a check-in.

« Falcon 9 puts 21 second-generation Starlink satellites into orbit » // Source : SpaceX on Twitter

Starlink is one of the offers and even the most attractive offer on the market if you do not have access to fiber optics or any other very high-speed connection. SpaceX has invested such a large amount of money in this project that they have gained a considerable advantage over competing offerings.

As a reminder, Starlink is a satellite constellation project developed and implemented by SpaceX, a company founded by Elon Musk. The objective of this project is to provide high-speed Internet access throughout the world, even in the most remote areas where terrestrial connections are not available or of insufficient quality.

Eventually, the satellites will be sent into space aboard a Starship rocket // Source: SpaceX

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 a very high speed.

The Starlink deployment includes several phases. In short, we are talking about 40,000 satellites over our heads. One hundred satellites were put into orbit in 2009, so we are talking about 800 to 1,000 satellites deployed every year between 2020 and 2022. As of mid-May 2022, SpaceX had already launched 2,600 satellites, 2,350 of which are still in orbit and 2,320 are operational. This fleet represents more than a third of the approximately 6,000 artificial satellites in Earth orbit at that date and two thirds of the American satellites.

The offer is available in France from February 2021, for 50 euros per month for individuals, in addition to an initial investment of 450 euros in the necessary equipment. This offer allows download speeds of 50 to 500 Mbit/s (downlink speed) and latency of 20 to 40 ms, with no data usage cap. This obviously depends on the quality of the environment and also on the number of satellites deployed. Therefore, these performances are constantly evolving as the releases are made.

As of the end of February 2023, Starlink is available in these countries // Source: Wikipedia

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 chosen a low orbit, we are talking about an altitude between 540 and 570 kilometers. These satellites emit in the Ku and Ka bands, the first versions were very light, weighing between 227 and 290 kilograms.

What are the second generation of Starlink satellites?

The first 21 second-generation Starlink satellites were launched on February 28, 2023. Initially, they were to be carried by the huge Starship, but plans have changed as this rocket is not yet available.

« Falcon 9 puts 21 second-generation Starlink satellites into orbit » // Source: SpaceX on Twitter

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 on board, but twenty.

First Starlink v2 satellites reach orbit

— 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 speeds of the first generations. In that case, E-band antennas should be used, which operate in the 71-79 GHz and 81-86 GHz frequency bands. As a reminder, the first generation of satellites mainly operates in the Ku and Ka bands, but also uses links optical laser for communication between satellites. This will also be the case with the second generation.

Source: SpaceX On twitter

The greater weight of this generation is linked mainly 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. Above all, will work for the first time with argon, the third most common gas in Earth’s atmosphere after nitrogen and oxygen. Until now, SpaceX used krypton as fuel (and exactly as gaseous propellants), which makes up only about 0.0001% of Earth’s atmosphere.

There’s no scarcity anymore with argon, and that’s a good thing. By the way, 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 threatened to overwhelm the market for rare and noble gases. With argon, we no longer fear shortages, but at the same pressure, a tank can only be filled with half as much argon as krypton. However, the lower amount of fuel is partly offset by a 50% higher fuel efficiency.

Passage of a series of Starlink satellites in Tübingen (Germany) // Source: Wikipedia

To date, 7,500 Starlink-2 satellites have been approved for launch. As in the first generation SpaceX will also try to reduce the brightness of satellites seen from Earth. As ? A large part of the satellites is covered with mirrors intended to reflect light. On all other surfaces, Starlink uses black, which reduces light reflection. Hopefully this will eventually remove the trail of satellites that can be seen at night.

These Starlink Gen2 satellites will also include an antenna of approximately 25 square meters that will offer satellite communication via smartphone, as well as other mobile devices, but also vehicles (such as cars). The iPhone 14 already offers this type of (emergency) connection, and Qualcomm has also announced that it will offer it in its future SoC, which will allow many Android smartphones to access this capability. In addition, in theory, the function is already present in all smartphones equipped with Snapdragon 8 Gen 2, Qualcomm’s new high-end chip.

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