SpaceX’s freakishly reliable Falcon 9 continues to impress. The rocket delivered 56 Starlink satellites to Earth orbit this morning, and with a collective weight around 17.4 metric tons, it’s now the heaviest payload ever lifted by a Falcon 9 rocket.
Blastoff occurred at 4:22 a.m. ET Thursday, with the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 taking flight from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The first stage booster, partaking in its ninth launch, returned to Earth some nine minutes later, landing safely on the Just Read the Instructions droneship stationed northeast of the Bahamas. SpaceX later confirmed that the rocket was successful in deploying all 56 Starlink satellites.
Routine stuff, save for the weight involved. With a combined payload weight exceeding 17.4 metric tons, the mission marks the “heaviest payload ever flown” on a Falcon 9, SpaceX announced in a tweet. The previous payload weight record for Falcon 9 was set in August 2022, when the rocket lifted 16.7 metric tons to orbit. “The likeliest explanation for the heavier payload appears to be another iterative improvement to Falcon 9,” according to Teslarati.
In terms of quantity, the 56 satellites fall far short of the Falcon 9 record set in January 2021 when the rocket delivered 143 satellites as part of the Transporter-1 rideshare mission. What’s more, SpaceX routinely launched 60 V1.0 Starlinks for a stretch running from 2019 to 2021. The upgraded V1.5 units are heavier, compelling SpaceX to launch lesser quantities with its reusable Falcon 9. The medium-lift rocket’s nine Merlin engines exert 1.7 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.
The newly launched Starlinks will now ascend to their operational orbit—a plane designed Starlink 5-2. This is SpaceX’s second Starlink deployment to that shell, the first being a batch of 54 satellites launched on December 28, 2022. This shell is meant for the company’s second-generation Starlinks, leading to considerable confusion as to which kind of satellite is going up these days.
Second-generation Starlinks, known as Gen2, will be bigger than previous versions, with added capabilities that will allow direct connectivity to cell phones, hence the recent arrangement between SpaceX and T-mobile. Gen2s should also improve Starlink coverage in the lower latitudes. The Starlink system now boasts over one million subscribers and is available on every continent, Antarctica included.
But the heavier, bulkier Gen2s require a rocket that has yet to launch: Starship. Until SpaceX’s new megarocket is deemed flightworthy, the company plans to launch miniature Gen2s featuring the same form factor as V1.5 Starlinks, allowing for launches aboard Falcon 9s.
Back in December, when SpaceX sent the first batch of Starlinks to the Gen2 shell, many spaceflight experts assumed that the company was sending the miniature Gen2s to space. Sleuthing by Harvard-Smithsonian astronomer Jonathan McDowell put these rumors to rest, however, as he learned that SpaceX is still launching V1.5 Starlinks to space.
Today’s launch was likely the same, with a batch of V1.5 Starlinks launched to low Earth orbit. Or at least, that’s my best guess. As McDowell tweeted at the time, “SpaceX are consistently vague in everything they say.” For sure. And it doesn’t help that SpaceX does not respond to questions from the media; so much for CEO Elon Musk’s stated obsession with transparency.
On December 1, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved the launch of 7,500 Gen2s, out of SpaceX’s planned 29,988. The FCC is deferring its decision on the remaining units until a later time, saying the adjournment “will protect other satellite and terrestrial operators from harmful interference and maintain a safe space environment, promoting competition and protecting spectrum and orbital resources for future use.”
SpaceX recently performed a full wet dress rehearsal of Starship, so it may only be a matter of time before the company can start launching its oversized Gen2 Starlinks to orbit.
More: SpaceX Gets ‘Partial’ FCC Approval to Deploy Second-Generation Starlink Satellites