WASHINGTON — The first group of larger, second-generation Starlink satellites is facing problems that may require SpaceX to deorbit at least some of them.
On March 22nd tweetSpaceX CEO Elon Musk said there were “some issues” with the Starlink satellite constellation launched on February 27, confirming industry speculation over the past several days based on the spacecraft’s changing orbits.
“Lots of new technology in Starlink V2, so we’re running into some issues, as expected,” he wrote. “Some of the seats will be deorbited, and others will be well tested before being lifted high above the space station.”
21 satellites, collectively known as Group 6-1, it began to raise its orbits two days after it was deployed in orbits at an altitude of about 370 km. However, the satellites stopped orbiting after a few days, maintaining their orbits at an altitude of about 380 kilometers. The International Space Station is located in an orbit between 415 and 420 kilometers high.
Starting around March 15, its orbital high began to decrease at varying rates: most gradually, but at least two are much steeper, dropping to about 365 km. All 21 remained in orbit, but this unusual behavior prompted speculation of problems with the satellites.
Musk’s tweet was the first comment from him or SpaceX to confirm there were problems with the satellites, though neither he nor the company have made it clear what those problems are.
The Group 6-1 satellites are the first of what SpaceX calls “V2 Mini” versions of Starlink satellites. It’s much larger than the first generation of Starlink satellites that SpaceX has launched, more than 4,000 to date.
The spacecraft features improved phased array antennas and the use of junction electron band frequencies that give each satellite four times the capacity of the previous spacecraft. They also have new high-performance electric propulsion engines that use argon fuel instead of krypton to reduce costs.
SpaceX hasn’t released details about the V2 Mini satellites, but a design called “F9-2” in filings the company filed with the Federal Communications Commission as part of its second-generation constellation application describes an 800-kilogram spacecraft and a pair of 12.8-meter solar arrays. The first-generation satellites weigh about 300 kilograms and have one cluster eight meters long.
As the name suggests, the V2 Mini spacecraft are miniature versions of the final V2 Starlink satellites, which will weigh about 2,000 kilograms each with 20-meter solar arrays. This spacecraft will launch on SpaceX’s Starship, while the V2 Mini is small enough to launch on Falcon 9 rockets.
The FCC partially authorized SpaceX’s second-generation, or Gen2, Starlink constellation in December, allowing the company to launch 7,500 of its proposed 30,000 satellites into orbits from 525 to 535 kilometers. SpaceX has since launched four batches of “Cluster 5” satellites into FCC-authorized Gen2 orbits, but those seem effectively identical to previous Starlink satellites.
Another batch of 5 is scheduled to be launched as soon as March 24 from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. A second batch of V2 Mini satellites, cluster 6-2, is scheduled to launch no later than March 30, also from Cape Canaveral, but it is uncertain if issues with the V2 Mini satellites in orbit will delay that launch.
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