A day and a half after its 200th launch overall, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket has successfully launched for the 200th time.
Falcon 9 has only suffered two mission-related failures in flight: one partial failure in 2012 and a catastrophic failure in 2015. Falcon 9’s 2015 failure entirely destroyed the rocket and its cargo-carrying Dragon spacecraft before they reached orbit. Its 2012 failure only doomed a secondary Orbcomm satellite payload, while the primary mission – a Cargo Dragon supply delivery for NASA – was technically successful.
Excluding partial failures, Starlink 5-3 was SpaceX’s 200th successful Falcon 9 launch since the rocket debuted in June 2010. Indicative of the company’s aggressive launch cadence as of late, Falcon 9 completed its 200th launch overall (199th success) less than two days prior, on January 31st.
Starlink 5-3 was SpaceX’s third launch for its Starlink Gen2 constellation, though the mission carried 53 ordinary Starlink V1.5 satellites. Oddly, the Starlink 5-2 mission carried 56 Starlink V1.5 satellites and set a new record for the heaviest SpaceX and Falcon 9 payload on January 26th. Just a few weeks prior, Falcon 9’s Starlink 5-1 launch carried 54 satellites – a curious amount of variability for three missions launching the same type of satellite to similar orbits.
As previously discussed on Teslarati, perhaps the single most important upgrade meant for SpaceX’s Starlink Gen2 constellation was a move to larger V2.0 satellites with almost a magnitude more usable bandwidth. But full-size Starlink V2.0 satellites can only be efficiently launched on SpaceX’s next-generation Starship rocket, which is likely at least 6-12 months away from its first satellite launch. SpaceX also told the FCC that it was building a mid-sized Starlink V2.0 satellite that could be launched on its existing Falcon rockets, but those compromised satellites have yet to appear.
Instead, SpaceX is launching Starlink V1.5 satellites under its Gen2 constellation license, which currently allows the company to launch and operate 7,500 of the almost 30,000 satellites it requested permission for. SpaceX’s Starlink Gen1 constellation is still ~1100 satellites away from completion. One possible explanation is that nearly all of the missing Gen1 satellites are headed to polar or semi-polar Earth orbits. Those polar satellites will spend far more time over regions of Earth with few to no Starlink customers, making them less capital-efficient than their mid-latitude siblings.
In other words, polar Starlink satellites – while necessary to ensure truly global coverage – effectively add less capacity to SpaceX’s network than they would if launched to midlatitude orbits. That appears to be exactly what SpaceX is currently doing with Starlink Gen2. The mid-latitude ‘shells’ of its Gen1 constellation are close to full, so the company is launching Starlink V1.5 satellites under its Gen2 license to increase the capacity of the overall network as quickly as possible.
Eventually, SpaceX will almost certainly replace those smaller, less capable V1.5 satellites with V2.0 satellites. In the near term, though, SpaceX has concluded that an inefficient gap-filler is better than waiting for a more optimal solution. It should not take long for the impact of Gen2 launches to be felt. Once the 163 ‘Gen2’ satellites launched in the last five weeks reach operational orbits, they will increase Starlink’s mid-latitude capacity by more than 5%.