SpaceX’s Starlink Surpasses 4,000 Satellites in Orbit: A New Era of Connectivity Begins

SpaceX, the leading space exploration and transportation company founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk, has successfully launched another batch of Starlink internet satellites. This is the fourth mission for SpaceX in less than a week, keeping the company on track to achieve nearly 100 rocket flights in 2023, up from 61 missions last year. The latest launch, numbered Starlink 5-6, took place on Thursday, May 5th, 2023, from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Pad 40 at 3:31 a.m. EDT (0731 UTC) on May 5th, 2023. This marks the 30th launch of the year for SpaceX and brought the total number of Starlink spacecraft launched to 4,340. The company currently has over 3,900 functioning Starlink satellites in space, with roughly nearly 3,400 operational and more than 400 moving into their operational orbits.

SpaceX’s Starlink network aims to provide high-speed, low-latency broadband internet access to consumers around the world. The Starlink satellites beam broadband internet signals to consumers, and this connectivity is now available on all seven continents. SpaceX says the network has more than 1 million active subscribers, mostly households in areas where conventional fiber connectivity is unavailable, unreliable, or expensive.

The latest launch by SpaceX added 56 Starlink satellites to the company’s global broadband constellation. These new satellites represent an intermediate step between the smaller Starlink V1.5 spacecraft and the even larger full-size Starlink V2s. The Starlink V2s are designed to transmit signals directly to cell phones and are planned to be deployed using SpaceX’s new Starship mega-rocket.

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The new Starlink V2 Minis launched by SpaceX carry upgraded phase array antennas and a more efficient, higher-thrust argon-fueled electric propulsion system. They also have two solar arrays, compared to a single extendable solar panel on each SpaceX’s Starlink V1.5 spacecraft. However, some of the Starlink V2 Mini satellites ran into problems after arriving in space. A few spacecraft in the first batch of Starlink V2 Mini satellites were de-orbited, and SpaceX has held back others from entering operational service.

SpaceX is in the final stages of populating the first-generation Starlink network, which includes satellites flying a few hundred miles up, orbiting at inclinations of 97.6 degrees, 70 degrees, 53.2 degrees, and 53.0 degrees to the equator. Last year, most of SpaceX’s Starlink launches have released satellites into Shell 4, at an inclination of 53.2 degrees, after the company largely completed launches into the first 53-degree inclination shell in 2021.

The Federal Communications Commission granted SpaceX approval in December 2022 to launch up to 7,500 of its planned 29,988-spacecraft Starlink Gen2 constellation. This new constellation will spread out into slightly different orbits than the original Starlink fleet, potentially improving Starlink coverage over lower latitude regions and alleviating pressure on the network from growing consumer uptake.

During Thursday’s early morning countdown, SpaceX’s launch team was stationed inside a launch control center just south of Cape Canaveral Space Force Station to monitor key systems on the Falcon 9 rocket and at the launch pad. SpaceX began loading super-chilled, densified kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants into the Falcon 9 vehicle at T-minus 35 minutes. In the final seven minutes before liftoff, the Falcon 9’s Merlin main engines were thermally conditioned

for flight through a procedure known as “chilldown.” The Falcon 9’s guidance and range safety systems were also configured for launch.

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After liftoff, the Falcon 9 rocket vectored its 1.7 million pounds of thrust, produced by nine Merlin engines, to steer southeast over the Atlantic Ocean. The Falcon 9 rocket exceeded the speed of sound in about one minute, then shut down its nine main engines two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff. The booster stage separated from the Falcon 9’s upper stage, then fired pulses from cold gas control thrusters and extended titanium grid fins to help steer the vehicle back into the atmosphere.

Two braking burns slowed the rocket for landing on the drone ship “A Shortfall of Gravitas” around 390 miles (630 kilometers) downrange approximately eight-and-a-half minutes after liftoff. The reusable booster, designated B1069 in SpaceX’s Starlink inventory, flew on its seventh trip to space on May 5th, 2023.

The Falcon 9’s reusable payload fairing jettisoned during the second stage burn. A recovery ship was also on station in the Atlantic to retrieve the two halves of the nose cone after they splash down under parachutes.

Landing of the first stage on Thursday’s mission occurred just as the Falcon 9’s second stage engine cut off to deliver the SpaceX’s Starlink satellites into a preliminary parking orbit. Another upper stage burn 54 minutes into the mission reshaped the orbit ahead of payload separation.

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After separating from the rocket, the 56 Starlink spacecraft will unfurl solar arrays and run through automated activation steps, then use their krypton-fueled ion engines to maneuver into their operational orbit 329 miles (530 kilometers) above Earth.

Jonathan McDowell, an expert tracker of spaceflight activity and an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, has tabulated SpaceX’s Starlink statistics on the Starlink satellites. According to McDowell’s research, SpaceX has more than 4,000 Starlink satellites flying in orbit for the first time, including the 56 new spacecraft launched on Thursday’s mission. The rest of the Starlink satellites launched by SpaceX have been decommissioned and de-orbited after their missions were completed, or after technical malfunctions.

Thursday’s SpaceX’s Starlink 5-6 mission continued deploying SpaceX’s older-generation Starlink V1.5 satellites after two launches earlier this year started placing a new generation of Starlink satellites in orbit. The new satellites, known as the SpaceX’s Starlink V2 Mini design, are larger and offer four times the broadband capacity of the older-design satellites.

In conclusion, SpaceX’s Starlink latest successful mission to launch more Starlink internet satellites marks another significant milestone for the company’s goal of providing high-speed, low-latency broadband internet access to consumers worldwide. With the addition of these new satellites, SpaceX’s Starlink network continues to expand rapidly, bringing the total number of Starlink spacecraft launched to over 4,000. As the company pushes forward with its plans to launch additional Starlink satellites, the goal of providing high-speed internet to remote and under-served areas around the globe draws closer.