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SpaceX to use both Falcon 9 and Starship to launch 2nd gen Starlink satellites

Capitalism in space: In a letter sent to the FCC, SpaceX has revealed that it has revised its plans for launching the second generation of Starlink satellites, and has decided to launch them with both Falcon 9 and Starship rockets.

SpaceX has decided to use a mix of Falcon 9 and Starship rockets to launch the 30,000 satellites in its proposed second-generation Starlink broadband constellation. Launching some of the satellites with SpaceX’s “tested and dependable Falcon 9” will accelerate the constellation’s deployment to improve Starlink services. SpaceX director of satellite policy David Goldman wrote in an Aug. 19 letter to the Federal Communications Commission. Goldman did not say when SpaceX could start launching the second-generation constellation, which remains subject to FCC approval.

Previously the company’s plan had been to use Starship only, essentially retiring Falcon 9 once Starship was flying. This change could be for two fundamental reasons. First, the company has been launching Starlinks on Falcon 9 like clockwork this year, at a pace that could launch as many as 2,500 Starlink satellites in 2022 alone. With about 70% of that rocket reusable, it might now seem cost effective to continue to use it, even after Starship is flying.

The second reason is more worrisome, and has to do with Starship itself. SpaceX officials might now realize that the delays being imposed by the federal regulatory leviathan on Starship development might be significant enough that it won’t be ready when they need it for the full deployment of Starlink’s second generation constellation. If the FCC approves that deployment (an approval that is presently pending), SpaceX will have to launch at least half the full constellation of 30,000 satellites by around 2024 (thought that date might have been revised slightly).

It now might be necessary to use Falcon 9, because the federal government under Biden is standing in the way of Starship development.

Of course, it is possible that the engineering challenge of building Starship might be another reason. SpaceX might have realized that the rocket will be delayed anyway, and thus needs Falcon 9 to meet its timetable as promised to the FCC.

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  • John hare

    I’ve mentioned elsewhere that it might have made sense to do a smaller ship as a precursor to the large one. Retire the learning curves on stainless construction and methane propulsion on a 9+1 platform that somewhat resembles the Falcon9. Have a vehicle in service by now that costs less than Falcon to fly and has double the payload. Should be less regulatory and GSE problems with something that is sold as an upgrade rather than a whole new system. Should be easier to get into more launch venues as well.

    Then use the experience To build the larger vehicles and to persuade the regulators.

  • Ray Van Dune

    Bob, I think your final guess is probably closest to the deciding factor. If I were SpaceX, I would be sensitive to the high profile of the Starship, knowing that it might experience delays caused by:
    1. Development problems,
    2. Accidents that damage biosphere or infrastructure,
    3. Priority demands from NASA to support Artemis, where it will play a critical role with no backup for some time.

    In this situation, to be totally dependent on SS would be risky, so keeping F9 available as a substitute or supplemental Star-link launch resource is smart.

  • Ray Van Dune

    Doesn’t the military want SpaceX to build a Falcon Heavy with a more voluminous payload fairing?! This might be another use for such a beast. Todays F9/FH fairings probably can’t fit in as many Star-link 2 sats as they could lift.

  • Jay

    Yes, USAF has a contracted flight, USSF-67, in November with the Falcon Heavy carrying payload NROL-44, which has a larger fairing. Because of the mass of the payload, the center Falcon will be expendable, but the side boosters will be recovered as usual.
    Source: Space Launch Now

  • James Street

    The thing that has me scratching my head is that with so much at stake Elon Musk doesn’t seem to be trying to make friends with the government. In fact he actually seems to be threatening them.

    Sundance at The Conservative Treehouse thinks that for reasons such as the incredible scale and performance of systems needed to run social media platforms that the American intelligence community is behind them. Musk through his offer to purchase Twitter and his lawsuits threatens to expose this:

    “If my hunch is correct, Elon Musk is poised to expose the well-kept secret that most social media platforms are operating on U.S. government tech infrastructure and indirect subsidy. Let that sink in.”

  • John

    The plan to retire Falcon after Starship flies never sat well with me. Falcon is reliable and affordable. It’s probably the most successful rocket since ever? The market for it will still be there, it could be a workhorse for years or decades to come. Hell, sell it to ULA while you lift the heavy stuff.

  • Jeff Wright

    There was some talk about a five core Falcon super heavy…100 tons, but more narrow than Starship’s diameter. Now, I might use even more Falcon cores for a scaled up Saturn IB-innermost tube drops cargo to the ground…long landing legs between cores. Center tube could hold more propellant for top mount payloads with solid mounting points. Launch to LEO empty-like LM-5 core. Slide manned compartment in center. The cluster tanks filled are now rad shields!

  • pzatchok

    Never retire that old truck while it still has work left in it.

    Retiring the Falcon9 was never my favorite idea. The platform and lift/size are still very viable. Customers will be using it for years and years.

  • sippin_bourbon

    I read in places where people say once Starship is fully operational, it will make everything else obsolete. And the idea of ending Falcon 9 is caught up in that. It does not makes sense to me. Falcon 9 is easily the most successful rocket. Even though it has not been around as long as others, and other successful systems have been retired, it appears today, as having potential to continue good and useful service for another 10 years. It is re-usability proven, lower cost, etc. Has any other rocket system ever launched at this pace?

    The Starship system as designed will lift a lot once it gets going. But the pace, at first, will certainly be slow. But will every launch need something that big? I read the other day the opinion that Astra, Relativity, RocketLab, etc will all go under the moment it becomes operational, because they will not be able to compete. I have a hard time understanding why inexpensive launchers throught 100 to 1000 kilos at a time will never be needed/used because there is a 100T launcher. The history of launch services seems to preclude this.

    If someone has a way of explaining this, please do so. I cannot see it. There are sea vessels so large they had to widen the Panama Canal. and yet, we still have smaller cargo vessels everywhere plying the seas. There are giant airliners, and we still have smaller carriers. There are trains that can move hundreds of containers across nations, and yet we have over the road, cross country drivers. Each transporter serves a purpose in the respective modes for differing reasons. My prediction is that this will hold true for launch services as well.

  • Edward

    Retiring Falcon 9 makes much sense, as Starship is intended to be much less expensive. However, if Starlink needs 15,000 satellites on orbit, then there will have to be a couple hundred Starship launches (1.25 Tonnes per satellite means 80 satellites per Starship launch, so 188 launches). That is a lot of launches for a new rocket! Starlink manufacturing will also have to keep up with the need to put up that many in the short time required to keep the government permission to use the orbits and frequencies.

    This explains why Musk was so worried, last November, about the ability to make enough Raptor engines to supply the needed rockets.

    Keeping Falcon flying until the required satellites are on orbit makes sense to me.

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