SpaceX set to begin second Starlink shell with Vandenberg launch

On the evening of September 13, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, carrying a total of 51 second-generation Starlink satellites into orbit. This will be the first launch in support of deploying the second shell of Starlink satellites.

The Falcon 9 is set to lift off from Vandenberg’s Space Launch Complex 4-East (SLC-4E) at 8:55 PM Pacific time (03:55 UTC on September 14), with backup opportunities available on September 15 and 16.

The Second Starlink Shell

Monday’s launch, designated Starlink Group 2-1, is set to begin the second main stage of deploying the Starlink satellite internet constellation. SpaceX has so far launched 1740 Starlink spacecraft over the course of over 30 missions, all of which have been either development spacecraft or satellites for the first “shell” of the constellation. 

Previous Starlink flights have seen the vast majority of satellites deployed at an orbital inclination of 53 degrees, constituting the first shell of the Starlink constellation. These spacecraft provide coverage between Earth’s 55th parallels.

In order to build the second shell, SpaceX will start deploying satellites at an approximately 70-degree inclination, which will allow for Starlink coverage in northern parts of the Americas such as Canada’s territories or Alaska, as well as Northern Europe and Southern parts of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. 

Alongside the first and second shells, SpaceX has deployed a small number of Starlink spacecraft at 97.5 degrees, utilizing spare spots on Falcon 9 smallsat rideshare missions, which will allow Starlink to begin providing coverage for polar regions.

This launch will also see the debut of the upgraded v1.5 series Starlink spacecraft, which includes upgraded laser inter-satellite communications systems needed for extending coverage to high latitudes and mid-ocean areas.

SpaceX’s Tintin A and B satellites, which were experimental precursors to the operational Starlink satellites, were launched as secondary payloads on a launch from Vandenberg in 2018. The Group 2-1 launch will mark the first operational Starlink launch from SLC-4E and the west coast, with all previous operational launches occurring from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Flight Profile

The Falcon 9 booster, which will loft the Starlink 2-1 mission into orbit, will be making its tenth trip to space. Falcon 9 B1049 first flew in September 2018 when it lofted the Canadian Telstar 18 Vantage communications satellite into orbit. 123 days later, B1049 launched on its second flight, launching the eighth and final batch of Iridium NEXT satellites into space.

Since then, the booster has been dedicated to Starlink flights, having launched 420 individual satellites over the course of seven missions.

B1049 ahead of its third flight in May 2019 – via SpaceX

The two fairing halves encapsulating the 51 satellites onboard on Monday are also spaceflight veterans, with one having previously flown on the NROL-108 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office last year, and the other half having supported two previous Falcon 9 missions, GPS-III-SV03 in 2020 and Turksat-5A earlier this year.

The booster performed a successful static fire on September 3, giving the rubber stamp to the booster ahead of the flight, paving the way for launch.

B1049 is scheduled to lift off from SLC-4E at 8:55 PM local time and will burn for an estimated 2 minutes and 32 seconds before Main Engine Cut Off and stage separation, following which the second stage will ignite and carry the 51 Starlinks the rest of the way to orbit.

Following stage separation, B1049 will begin preparing for its tenth return to Earth, starting a 20-second entry burn at the six-minute and 46-second mark, putting the booster on a safe return trajectory. After just over two minutes of coasting, the booster will ignite again for its landing burn ahead of a planned soft touch down on Of Course I Still Love You, the SpaceX drone ship landing platform stationed in the area.

Of Course I Still Love You was initially stationed in Port Canaveral, Florida, supporting Falcon 9 launches from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Earlier this year, following the arrival of A Shortfall of Gravitas in Florida, Of Course I Still Love You was moved to Long Beach, California to support launches from Vandenberg.

If B1049 successfully lands, it will mark the first use of a drone ship in the Pacific since the same Falcon 9 booster, B1049, launched the Iridium NEXT-8 mission in January of 2019. Since then, SpaceX has not had a drone ship stationed in the Pacific to support West Coast launches, since Just Read the Instructions moved to Port Canaveral to support East Coast launches.

A Falcon 9 booster on Just Read the Instructions following an Iridium NEXT mission – via Sam Sun for NSF/L2

With the booster returning to Earth, the Falcon 9’s second stage will finish the heavy lifting to get the payload to orbit. Then, just under three minutes into the flight, the two payload fairing halves will separate, as the rocket will be high enough to avoid payload damage from atmospheric friction.

The second stage will burn another six minutes before Second Stage Engine Cutoff, bringing an end to the powered portion of the flight. After under ten minutes of coasting, the 51 satellites will be deployed, and the first components of the Second Starlink shell will be in orbit.

(Lead photo of a Falcon 9 on SLC-4E before the Iridium NEXT-7 mission – via Brady Kenniston for NSF)

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