SpaceX, in a span of five years, has launched over 5,000 Starlink satellites into earth’s low orbit. The overwhelming majority of those launches can be attributed to older versions, namely V1 and V1.5 satellites.
However, a new and substantially more potent version is now being deployed as well. Dubbed V2 and V2 Mini (or Gen2), the two satellite versions promise substantial improvements compared to their predecessors.
In this article, I will detail what the Gen2 satellites are, how exactly they compare to previous versions, and how they stack up against the competition.
What Are Starlink’s Gen2 Satellites?
On February 27th, 2023, Starlink deployed a total of 21 Gen2 (or V2) Mini satellites, representing the next and upgraded version of its V1 and V1.5 satellites.
There are two separate versions of Starlink’s V2 satellites, namely Gen2 and Gen2 Mini (the latter being compatible with the Falcon 9 launch vehicle).
The distinction is of importance because SpaceX eventually aims to deploy the larger version, Gen2, on board its soon-to-be-operational Starship rocket.
Back in late October 2022, SpaceX filed with the FCC, requesting authorization for the deployment of its second-gen fleet on the Falcon 9.
Later that month, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk confirmed that his company was working on what he called the “mini” version at an event hosted by T-Mobile (Starlink and T-Mobile are allegedly working on a joint cellular service).
SpaceX ultimately received the green light from the FCC for Gen2 deployment back in December 2022. The February launch, which is part of Group 6, was the first step towards expanding its existing constellation with the Gen2 version.
The Gen2 Mini satellites weigh around 800 kg (~ 1,753 lbs), operate at an altitude of 550km, and inclination of 53 degrees.
V2 Mini sats also utilize newly implemented Hall effect thrusters that use argon (instead of krypton, which is significantly rarer and thus expensive) as the propellant.
Sara Spangelo and Benjamin Longmier, co-founders of Swarm Technologies, which is the only firm SpaceX ever acquired (back in July 2021), are the key figures behind the switch to argon.
Furthermore, V2 Mini satellites are powered by two solar arrays that are 12.8 meters long.
However, Gen2 Mini satellites pale in comparison to the fully-fledged V2’s. They weigh around 2,000 kg each (~ 4409 lbs), with solar arrays that are 20 meters long.
SpaceX, as part of the December 2022 FCC approval, can operate the Gen2 satellites (not Mini) in three low-Earth-orbit orbital shells, at 525 km, 530 km, and 535 km altitude, respectively.
Lastly, the V2 Mini satellites as well as the larger version both underwent several measures to mitigate brightness and thus eliminate problems such as streaks on telescope images.
SpaceX previously shared an update that highlighted the firm’s intention to work together with astronomers and the U.S. government to minimize the potential externalities its satellites could cause.
Examples include the utilization of dielectric mirror film to deflect sunlight away from earth or adopting low-reflectivity black paint to reduce specular peak by a factor of five compared to the darkest available space stable paint.
It has to be noted that the effectiveness of those measures can only be validated once the satellites reach their designated orbit. V2 Mini’s may be bright initially, especially during orbit raising and initial operations.
How They Compare to Previous Versions
One of the biggest differences between the Gen2 satellites and their predecessors, namely V1 and V1.5, is the throughput each satellite can provide.
Starlink V1.x satellites offer 20 Gbps of bandwidth. With around 50 satellites being deployed with each mission, Starlink is able to expand its total throughput by 1 Tbps (or 1,000 Gbps).
Meanwhile, each Starlink V2 mini satellite provides 80 Gbps. For example, the above-mentioned Falcon 9 launch (27.02.2023) carried a total of 21 mini sats, which upped Starlink’s bandwidth by another 1.8 Tbps (once the satellites reach their designed altitude).
V2 Mini’s entail updates such as more powerful phased array antennas and the use of E-band for backhaul, thus allowing them to provide 4x the capacity of previous versions.
Data throughput isn’t the only difference between the V1.x and V2 models. The V1.5 satellite, for example, weighs 300 kg, has solar arrays with a length of 10 meters, and utilizes the much rarer krypton as the propellant.
The thrusters that the V2 Mini uses are 2.4 times more powerful than previous versions (SpaceX did not specify whether it referred to V1 or V1.5 but I would assume the latter).
And in September 2023, Starlink upgraded optical sensors of the V2 Mini, allowing them to transfer up to 100 Gbps worth of data per laser link.
Starlink’s constellation now boasts over 8,000 optical crosslinks among its satellites. As a result, latency should also remain fairly low in locations without many nearby ground stations.
That said, both the V1 and V1.5 satellites remain in low-earth orbit (LEO) for around 5 to 6 years after which they reenter earth’s atmosphere and simply burn up.
The lifespan of V2 satellites is yet to be disclosed by SpaceX. However, the V2 Mini, just like its predecessor, isn’t always working perfectly fine.
On April 4th, 2023, the first Gen2 reentered earth via a controlled deorbit off the coast of California.
Luckily, subsequent launches have performed substantially better. Over 100 V2 Mini sats are now in Earth’s orbit and already operational.
How They Stack Up Against the Competition
Starlink and SpaceX certainly aren’t the only ones that launch satellites into LEO or geosynchronous (GEO) orbit.
After all, the global satellite internet market is already worth over $2.5 billion and expected to more than double in size by the year 2030.
Therefore, Starlink counts many competitors, which either focus on establishing LEO constellations or deploy a selected few satellites into GEO.
One of its biggest rivals is OneWeb, which aims to establish an LEO constellation of 648 satellites by the end of 2023.
Each OneWeb satellite is capable of delivering 7.2 Gbps of bandwidth, for a total of 1.1 Tbps (7.2 Gbps x 648 satellites). Additionally, OneWeb’s satellites roam earth at a distance of around 1,200 km (~ 745 miles) and an inclination of 87.4 degrees.
The comparatively lower bandwidth means that OneWeb is largely focused on B2B customers where it competes with Starlink in the maritime and aviation industries, among many others.
Meanwhile, Amazon vis-à-vis Project Kuiper is yet to disclose how much bandwidth its satellites, which are set for initial launch sometime in 2023, can provide.
On the GEO side, Starlink mostly battles it out with the likes of HughesNet and ViaSat – at least in the United States, which is its biggest market by a wide margin (allegedly over 80 percent of all Starlink subscribers are based in the US.
ViaSat claims that its newest satellites, dubbed ViaSat-3, offer 1 Tbps of throughput per satellite. The three satellites in GEO thus offer 3 Tbps of bandwidth in total. Additionally, they each weigh 6,400 kg (~ 14,000 lbs) while orbiting earth at an altitude of around 37,000 km (23,000 miles).
HughesNet, on the other side, operates two satellites called the Jupiter 1 (a.k.a. EchoStar XVII) and the Jupiter 2 (a.k.a. EchoStar XIX). Jupiter 3 (a.k.a. EchoStar XXIV) is expected to be launched in 2023.
Jupiter 1 weighs 6,100 kg (~ 13,448 lbs) and its distance to earth is around 35,888 km (22,300 miles) while Jupiter 2 weighs 6,637 kg (~ 14,632 lbs) and travels in a similar altitude. Both satellites have a shelf life of around 15 years.
For now, it seems that SpaceX and Starlink aren’t just outcompeting GEO operators in terms of the number of satellites being deployed but also outshining their LEO contemporaries when it comes to bandwidth performance.
I’m personally very interested to see whether the V2 Mini satellites will help alleviate some of the network congestion issues Starlink has faced, particularly in the United States.
Nonetheless, the success of Starlink and SpaceX also hinges on getting the Starship rocket quite literally off the ground as it will be the one capable of carrying the heavier V2 satellites.
SpaceX was previously approved by the FCC to deploy 7,500 Gen2 sats, so showing that it is capable of deploying them at scale is of the utmost importance in order to continue receiving regulatory approval.