Ever curious about the design of a Starlink satellite?
Despite their growing global presence, SpaceX keeps the visuals and specifics of these advanced satellites largely under wraps – and for good reason.
Not only is Starlink facing increasing competition from projects like Amazon’s Kuiper or even the Chinese state, but SpaceX itself is also providing defense-related service to the US government (vis-à-vis Starshield).
That said, multiple images and videos have been shared by both SpaceX and enthusiasts over the years, so let’s examine them.
Here’s How Starlink’s Gen2 Mini Satellites Look Like
Since February 2023, Starlink begun launching the larger Gen2 Mini satellites. Here’s how they look like from upfront:
What you can see in the above (or title) image are the 21 Gen2 Mini satellites stacked onto each other (deployed on Feb 27th, 2023).
The satellites are placed on the payload fairing of the Falcon 9 rocket, which is the cone-shaped nose section of the rocket that protects the satellites from the harsh environment during launch.
“The V2 satellites launched on Falcon 9 are a bit smaller, so we affectionately refer to them as “V2 Mini” satellites,” SpaceX wrote when they were first released. “But don’t let the name fool you, a V2 Mini satellite has four times the capacity for serving users compared to its earlier counterparts.”
After a fiery first-stage boost, Falcon 9 sheds its used stage mid-flight with a gentle push.
The nimble second stage ignites, taking Starlink satellites to their orbital home, while the first stage returns for a land or sea landing.
The satellites are then being deployed from the payload compartment after the second stage reaches its designated orbit.
That sequence looks like this:
And this is another angle of that deployment process (with some gorgeous views on top):
Once freed from the protective embrace of the payload compartment, the Starlink Gen2 Mini satellites embark on a journey of self-reliance.
Each satellite activates its onboard thrusters to maneuver into its designated orbital position. This can take several days, with careful adjustments ensuring optimal spacing and communication capabilities.
The newer Gen2 satellites are using argon Hall thrusters. Their implementation was led by Ben Longmier whose startup, Swarm Technologies, was acquired by SpaceX in 2021.
Prior to argon, SpaceX was relying on krypton to accelerate its satellites. However, krypton is substantially rarer and thus more expensive, so a switch was long overdue.
Once on the way to their designated orbit, the Starlink satellites will roam earth for a few weeks in a train-like formation (commonly referred to as satellite trains).
This is when the satellites are visible to the human eye down from Earth – as seen in the following video I captured a while back.
Once safely separated, the satellite’s solar arrays, typically folded accordion-style within the compartment, extend like wings using electric motors.
As the solar panels capture sunlight, onboard regulators switch seamlessly to solar power, ensuring continuous operation.
We unfortunately don’t have any live footage of how those unfolded satellites look like. However, various renders do exist.
Here’s one that CNBC provided (starting at 02:56 as well as seen in the thumbnail):
The image is strikingly similar to the infographic that SpaceX provided on its Direct-to-Cell page – a service set to launch in 2024.
The part located next to the solar array is referred to as the satellite bus (or baseplate). It houses all the control and communication systems necessary to communicate with Starlink’s ground station network and the terminals.
How Starlink Will Deploy Bigger Gen2 Satellites
While Starlink is currently launching Gen2 Mini satellites, it won’t do that forever. A much bigger version, simply dubbed Gen2, is already in the works.
The regular-sized Gen2 satellites will weigh around 2,000 kg each (~ 4409 lbs), 2.5x the size of the Gen2 Mini sats.
As a result, they do not fit on either the Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy rocket. Instead, they will be transported on SpaceX’s Starship rocket, which remains in development.
Naturally, we do not have much visual information about what does satellites will look like. So once again, renders come to our rescue.
The above video shows a Starship render, ejecting the bigger Gen2 satellites in groups of two.
What we can infer from the video is that SpaceX estimates to be able to deploy around 56 Gen2 satellites per Starship launch.
For reference: a current Falcon 9 launch houses around 22 Gen2 Mini satellites that are a fraction of the size of the Gen2 version.