Starship SN10 liftoff
SpaceX's Starship SN10 prototype lifts off on a test flight March 3. Credit: SpaceX

TAMPA, Fla. — SpaceX is proposing to use Starship to rapidly deploy its second-generation Starlink constellation, providing denser rural coverage without needing more than the 30,000 satellites it previously envisioned for the follow-on network.

The proposal is one of two revised configurations that SpaceX filed Aug. 18 with the Federal Communications Commission for Starlink Gen2, updating a plan submitted in 2020. 

The other configuration envisages continuing to use Falcon 9 rockets for launching Starlink satellites, and also does not involve a larger constellation or require more spectrum than what SpaceX outlined last year.

Instead, the revised scenarios for Starlink Gen2 aim to spread satellites more evenly across nine to 12 inclined orbits to provide denser polar coverage for rural subscribers, as well as national security and first responder customers, to make the network’s performance more consistent.

SpaceX said it prefers the configuration that uses its heavy-lift Starship rocket because it would allow satellites to enter service “within a matter of weeks after launch, rather than months.” The company recently accelerated work at its Starbase test site in Boca Chica, Texas, to prepare for Starship’s first orbital flight.

The Starship-enabled Starlink configuration comprises 29,988 satellites at altitudes of between 340 and 614 kilometers, across nine inclined orbits.

“By targeting multiple inclinations, these revised orbital parameters will more evenly distribute capacity by latitude ensuring better, more consistent global coverage,” SpaceX said in an FCC filing.

“SpaceX will also nearly double the number of satellites deployed in sun-synchronous orbit optimized for key throughput demand times and service to polar regions like Alaska, resulting in additional capacity for those chronically underserved areas. 

“The revised orbital planes enable ‘direct to station’ launch campaigns that capitalize on the ability of Starship to deliver satellites at a faster pace.”

The Falcon 9-launched configuration would spread 29,996 satellites across 12 orbital inclinations at altitudes between 328 and 614 kilometers altitude.

Although the Gen2 satellites will be “somewhat larger and generate more power than originally contemplated,” SpaceX said its analysis shows they would not interfere with other constellations, or increase the risk of debris-causing collisions in space.

As with the more than 1,600 Starlink satellites SpaceX currently operates in low Earth orbit at an altitude of around 550 kilometers, Gen2 spacecraft will rely on collision-avoidance software and on-board propulsion to mitigate debris threats.

The increasingly crowded space environment is a growing concern for businesses and regulators worldwide, as a rising number of megaconstellations plan to deploy thousands more LEO satellites in the coming years.

Satellite broadband operator Viasat has launched legal action against SpaceX in an attempt to compel an environmental review into its Starlink expansion plans.

“As the Commission has recognized, because SpaceX has invested in advanced propulsion capabilities for its satellites, collision risk with large objects is considered to be zero while the spacecraft are capable of maneuvering,” SpaceX said in the FCC filing.

“While SpaceX expects its satellites to perform nominally and deorbit actively, in the unlikely event a vehicle is unable to finish its planned disposal maneuver, the denser atmospheric conditions at the low altitudes proposed herein for use by the Gen2 System provide fully passive redundancy to SpaceX’s active disposal procedures.”

Even in a “worst-case scenario” where a Starlink satellite loses maneuverability and attitude control in operational orbit, a satellite in either proposed Gen2 configuration would reenter the atmosphere within four years and burn up.

At lower altitudes than satellites in the first-generation Starlink constellation and other megaconstellations including OneWeb, Gen2 spacecraft would spend less time illuminated by the sun, posing less of a reflection problem for astronomers.

SpaceX is asking the FCC for waivers to proceed with either configuration. 

One of the waivers concerns power flux density Ka-band downlink limits set by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

These limits rely on flawed calculations, according to SpaceX, because they were devised without the capability to scale up for non-geostationary constellations with more than 840 satellites.

The FCC had told SpaceX to get a “favorable” or “qualified favorable” finding from the ITU on its equivalent power flux-density (EPFD) limits before initiating services.

“Given the volume of pending EPFD filings, the ITU is unlikely to complete its evaluation of the Gen2 System and render an EPFD finding on a time frame that will match SpaceX’s aggressive constellation deployment schedule,” SpaceX said in a related FCC filing.

Without a waiver from the FCC, SpaceX warned it “would have to postpone providing the more capable and efficient service contemplated under this new constellation until the ITU completes its analysis, with many gigahertz of valuable spectrum remaining underutilized in the interim.”

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...