SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches heaviest payload yet

For the third time in less than a year, SpaceX has launched its heaviest payload yet. (Richard Angle)

SpaceX has launched its heaviest payload yet for the third time in ten months, demonstrating that it’s still finding ways to improve the performance of its mature Falcon rockets.

At 9:30 am EST, January 25th, SpaceX completed a static fire of the two-stage Falcon 9 rocket assigned to launch its next Starlink mission. Half an hour later, SpaceX confirmed that the rocket performed well and is scheduled to launch no earlier than 4:32 am EST (09:32 UTC) on Thursday, January 26th. SpaceX didn’t state the mission’s purpose, but shorthand (“sl5-2”) used in an official website URL implied that it would be the second launch for its Starlink Gen2 satellite constellation.

Flying for the ninth time, Falcon 9 booster B1067 lifted off on schedule and sent an expendable Falcon upper stage and Starlink 5-2’s 56-satellite payload on their way to space. B1067 safely touched down on a SpaceX drone ship soon after, setting it up to reach double digits later this year. The bus-sized stack of satellites was deployed in orbit soon after, completing SpaceX’s 176th consecutively successful launch since January 2017.

Eleven Teslas to orbit

56 is not an unprecedented number of satellites for a SpaceX launch or a Starlink launch. SpaceX has launched a record 143 rideshare payloads at once, and the company routinely launched 60 Starlink satellites at a time throughout 2019, 2020, and half of 2021. But those Starlink satellites were the first versions (V0.9-V1.0) of the spacecraft and weighed either 227 or 260 kilograms (500/570 lbs) apiece.

In the second half of 2021, SpaceX began launching new Starlink V1.5 satellites. Outfitted with laser links (optical terminals) and other miscellaneous upgrades, the new satellites weigh either 303, 307, or 309 kilograms (668, 676, or 681 lb) each. The heavier design forced SpaceX to slightly reduce the number of satellites each launch could carry. After some optimization, SpaceX regularly launches up to 54 Starlink V1.5 satellites per rocket, down from 60 V1.0 satellites.

The number of satellites may be smaller, but the mass of the payload launched has never been higher. SpaceX last broke Falcon 9’s payload mass record in August 2022, when it launched 54 Starlink V1.5 satellites for the first time. The payload reportedly weighed 16.7 tons (~36,800 lb), breaking the previous record of 16.25 tons by about 3%. The heaviest 60-satellite Starlink V1.0 payload weighed ~15.6 tons (~34,400 lb).

Stacks of Starlink V1.0 and V1.5 satellites. (SpaceX)

Now, Falcon 9 has launched 56 Starlink V1.5 satellites at once. SpaceX says the payload weighed 17.4 tons (~38,400 lb), crushing the company’s previous record of 16.7 tons. 17.4 tons is just shy of the weight of 11 Tesla Model 3s.

Starlink 5-2 targeted the same orbit as Starlink 5-1, which carried 54 satellites, indicating that SpaceX has likely made another iterative improvement to Falcon 9 performance. As SpaceX has gained confidence in and experience with Falcon 9, it’s been able to tweak the timing of certain launch events, raise performance limits, and reduce margins throughout the rocket. Starlink 5-2’s record payload means that SpaceX’s tweaks have collectively boosted Falcon 9’s performance by 11.5% (15.6 to 17.4 tons) in just a few years.

Gen1, V1.0, V1.5, Gen2, V2.0

Starlink 5-2 continues a trend of confusion begun by the company’s first Starlink Gen2 launch, which it deemed Starlink 5-1. The naming scheme implied that the satellites were a continuation of the company’s first constellation, Starlink Gen1, but SpaceX confirmed that they were the first Starlink Gen2 satellites. That SpaceX is launching 54 (and now 56) satellites also confirms that they are likely the same V1.5 satellites the company has been launching for 18 months.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has outright stated that the company could go bankrupt if it couldn’t begin launching much larger Starlink V2.0 satellites on its Starship rocket in the near future. Instead, SpaceX is doing the exact opposite and is populating its Starlink Gen2 constellation with Gen1-sized satellites. It’s unclear when SpaceX will begin launching the larger Starlink V2.0 satellites that were meant to be the mainstay of the Gen2 constellation.

Rewatch SpaceX’s second Starlink Gen2 launch below.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches heaviest payload yet
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