SpaceX Says Falcon 9 Can Launch Future Starlink Satellites—a Sign Starship Is Far From Ready

The company's original intention was to have Starship do the heavy lifting, but the altered plan suggests Elon's jumbo rocket won't be ready any time soon.

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 during launch.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 during launch.
Photo: SpaceX

The next generation of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites will be heavier and larger than their predecessors, which is why SpaceX has said they’ll need to launch aboard the upcoming Starship rocket. But the company now wants to use its existing Falcon 9 for Starlink 2.0 launches—a decision that will come at a cost.

It appears that SpaceX will be using its Falcon 9 rockets, as well as its upcoming Starship rocket, to launch Starlink 2.0 satellites to orbit. In a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on August 19, the company said it will downsize its next-gen internet satellites to make them fit into the Falcon 9 rocket despite earlier plans to launch Starlink 2.0 on the heavy lift Starship rocket.

SpaceX has 2,841 satellites currently in orbit as part of a satellite megaconstellation designed to deliver internet connectivity to remote parts of the world. SpaceX’s CEO Elon Musk is hoping to launch a total of 42,000 satellites to Earth orbit, but the FCC has only approved 12,000 Starlinks for launch. The company is currently preparing to launch its next generation of Starlink satellites, which are designed to be more effective. Starlink 2.0 satellites will measure 22 feet long (7 meters) and weigh roughly 2,755 pounds (1,250 kg), while its predecessor weighs about 573 pounds (260 kilograms).

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As a result of the heavier payload, SpaceX was counting on its upcoming Starship rocket to launch Starlink 2.0 as opposed to its Falcon 9 rocket, which is currently lifting the first-gen versions to space on a regular basis. Starship is designed to lift more than 100 tons of payload to Earth orbit, as opposed to the Falcon 9, which can carry nearly 23 tons to Earth orbit, according to Space News.

Starship is equipped with deployment slots to spit out the Starlink satellites like a Pez dispenser. The satellites could then enter into service weeks after being deployed rather than months following a typical Falcon 9 deployment. “Falcon neither has the volume nor the mass [for the] orbit capability required for Starlink 2.0,” Musk said during an interview in May. “So even if we shrunk the Starlink satellite down, the total up mass of Falcon is not nearly enough to do Starlink 2.0.”

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But it looks as though SpaceX is prioritizing the launch of Starlink 2.0s to orbit, even at the cost of having to develop two different versions—one for Starship and one for Falcon 9. Another possibility is that Starships won’t enter into service for the foreseeable future, requiring SpaceX to alter its plans and include Falcon 9 rockets for second-gen Starlink launches. Regardless of the reason, the company revealed in its letter that the next generation of Starlink satellites will be optimized to fit into Falcon 9 while claiming that they’ll still be “technically identical” to the ones that will preserve the original design.

A prototype of the fully stacked two-stage Starship rocket is currently being tested at the company’s Boca Chica facility in Texas, but no date has been set for its inaugural launch. In June, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) cleared SpaceX for its planned site expansion, moving Starship closer to its orbital debut. The FAA handed SpaceX a list of about 75 environmental mitigation actions that it must complete before getting the final go-ahead for launch. We don’t know when Starship will finally reach orbit, but it’s fair to say that SpaceX will continue to launch Starlinks at a frenetic pace.

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More: The Potential for Larger—and Brighter—Starlink Satellites Has Astronomers Worried