SpaceX has completed its 60th orbital launch of 2022, marking the first time the company has fully hit a public cadence target set by one of its executives.
By every possible measure, 2022 has been a groundbreaking year for SpaceX even when considering the vast list of achievements it’s racked up over the last half-decade. It owns and operates the largest satellite constellation in history by an order of magnitude. Its Starlink satellite internet service has secured more than a million subscribers less than two years after entering beta. It operates the only routinely reusable orbital-class rockets and orbital spacecraft currently in service. Its Falcon 9 workhorse has launched more in one year than any other single rocket in history. It’s regularly launching at a pace that hasn’t been sustained by any one country – let alone a single company – in 40 years. It’s managing that near-historic cadence while simultaneously recovering and reusing boosters and fairings that represent some 70% of the value of almost every rocket it launches.
And now, SpaceX can also proudly show that it was able to hit a launch cadence target that seemed impossibly ambitious when CEO Elon Musk first shared it nine months ago.
Exactly nine months later, SpaceX has just completed its 60th launch of 2022. 69 days after its last orbital-class launch, Falcon 9 booster lifted off for the 11th time with a somewhat mysterious batch of 54 Starlink satellites. A bit less than nine minutes after liftoff, B1062 touched down 660 kilometers (410 mi) downrange on SpaceX drone ship A Shortfall Of Gravitas (ASOG). Seconds prior, Falcon 9’s expendable upper stage reached orbit, shut down its lone Merlin Vacuum engine, and began slowly spinning itself end over end.
Nineteen minutes after leaving the ground, the stack of 54 Starlink satellites was released all at once, slowly spreading out like a splayed deck of cards. Over the coming hours, days, and weeks, those satellites will naturally spread out, deploy solar arrays, stabilize their attitudes, test their payloads, and begin climbing toward an operational orbit somewhere between 480 and 580 kilometers (300-360 mi) above Earth’s surface.
As previously discussed, SpaceX’s so-called “Starlink 5-1” mission raises a number of questions that the company’s launch webcast and communications unfortunately failed to answer. First and foremost, the “5-1” name is nonsensical. The only information SpaceX did disclose about the mission is that it’s the “first [launch] of Starlink’s upgraded network…under [a] new license,” implying – but not actually confirming – that “Starlink 5-1” is the first launch for the Starlink Gen2 constellation.
The orbit the launch targeted only matches one of the Gen2 ‘shells’ the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently approved. Using a naming scheme that’s been consistent for a year and a half, “5-1” implies that the mission is the first launch of Starlink Gen1’s fifth ‘shell’ or group, which the orbit it was actually launched to explicitly makes impossible. It’s very odd that SpaceX did not explicitly call the mission what it actually is: the first launch of an entirely new Starlink Gen2 constellation. The name ultimately doesn’t matter much, but is now likely to create confusion given that SpaceX’s Starlink Gen1 constellation has a fifth shell that may begin launches in the near future.
Additionally, outside of a single obscure FCC filing submitted two months ago, it’s long been stated and implied that the Starlink Gen2 constellation’s main advantage over Gen1 was the much larger size of the Gen2/V2 satellites. But the satellites launched on “Starlink 5-1” appear to be virtually identical to all recent Starlink V1.5 satellites, which CEO Elon Musk once suggested were so cost-inefficient that they could risk bankrupting SpaceX in November 2021.
There is one obvious explanation for why SpaceX would launch ordinary Starlink V1.5 satellites in place of the larger V2 variants that will supposedly make the internet constellation more financially sustainable: a desire to add new customers as quickly as possible, no matter the relative cost. While a much smaller V1.5 satellite likely offers around 3-8 times less usable bandwidth than one of the larger V2 variants SpaceX is developing, it may still be true that a V1.5 satellite is better than nothing while larger V2 satellites are stuck behind development delays or waiting on SpaceX’s next-generation Starship rocket.
SpaceX will almost certainly want to replace any V1.5 satellites with V2 satellites when the opportunity arises, but in the meantime, V1.5 satellites launched as part of the Gen2 constellation may technically allow SpaceX to temporarily double the amount of bandwidth available where most people (and Starlink customers) live. Ultimately, that means that it makes a lot of sense for SpaceX to prioritize Gen2 launches. It doesn’t appear that SpaceX will go that far, but the Starlink Gen1 constellation is so far along that the company could easily leave the constellation as-is and prioritize Gen2 Falcon 9 launches for all of 2023 without risking an FCC penalty. SpaceX simply needs to finish its Gen1 constellation before April 2027 to avoid breaking those rules.
Instead, it looks like SpaceX will roughly split its launch and V1.5 satellite manufacturing capacity between Starlink Gen1 and Gen2 moving forward. That will let SpaceX significantly expand bandwidth where most customers live while also finishing the polar-orbiting Gen1 shells that will let the older constellation better serve maritime and aviation subscribers, and reach Starlink’s most remote customers.