SpaceX is on track to launch its 31st Starlink mission of 2022 later this morning.
No earlier than (NET) 10:50 am EDT (14:50 UTC) on Thursday, October 20th, a Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to lift off from SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) LC-40 launch pad with 54 internet satellites in tow. Weighing in at 16.75 tons (~36,900 lb), the batch of Starlink V1.5 satellites is one of just a few left for SpaceX to complete the second of five ‘shells’ that make up its first constellation.
Even before today’s Starlink 4-36 launch, more than two-thirds of the 4408 satellites required to complete the constellation are already in orbit and (by all appearances) working as expected. Of the 3131 working satellites in orbit, approximately 2700 are at their operational altitudes and theoretically capable of serving customers on Earth. Another ~390 satellites are in the process of climbing to their operational orbits. Once they’re done, SpaceX’s first Starlink constellation will be more than two-thirds complete.
The constellation is made up of five orbital ‘shells’ – distinct groups of satellites that share a similar orbital inclination (the angle between the satellite’s orbit and Earth’s equator) and altitude. Two of those shells, known as Group 1 and Group 4, contain 3168 satellites or more than two-thirds of the constellation. They’re nearly identical and focus on Earth’s mid-latitudes, where almost every person (and customer) on Earth resides. Both are almost complete: astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell estimates that 1456 of 1584 possible Group 1 satellites are operational. Group 4 is one launch behind, with about 1405 working satellites in orbit.
In addition to Starlink 4-36, SpaceX has one more Starlink launch (4-31) tentatively scheduled in late October. The company’s November manifest is jam-packed with up to five commercial launches, potentially precluding any additional Starlink launches next month. December could be an even more commercially productive month if just a handful of schedules hold. But there’s a chance that SpaceX will find space to complete two more Starlink launches within the next ten weeks, allowing it to nearly complete Group 4 by the end of the year.
Once #4 is complete, all future launches for SpaceX’s first-generation Starlink constellation will likely head to one of three shells with semi-polar or polar inclinations. Group 2, the largest of the remaining shells with a planned 720 satellites, can be launched from any of SpaceX’s three pads. SpaceX has already launched one batch of Group 2 satellites and will need to complete ~13 more launches to finish the shell. Finally, more than half of Group 3’s 348 satellites have already been launched, but SpaceX has yet to start Group 5 (172 satellites). Both Group 3 and Group 5 will likely be launched out of SpaceX’s California launch pad.
Including an allowance for several dozen on-orbit satellite failures over the same period, SpaceX’s first Starlink constellation thus appears to be about 23 launches away from completion. If SpaceX matches its 2022 cadence in 2023, the entire 4408-satellite constellation could be fully operational before the end of next year. If SpaceX can hit its target of 100 total launches in 2023, the first Starlink constellation could be fully operational months before the end of 2023.
Even with a third of its satellites still on the ground, Starlink is close to an order of magnitude larger than any other constellation in history. Confirming an estimate shared by Teslarati earlier this year, CEO Elon Musk says that SpaceX now owns and operates more than half of all active satellites in orbit less than three years after the company began operational Starlink launches.
Tune in below to watch SpaceX’s 31st Starlink mission and 48th launch this year.