SpaceX could begin launching the fourth of five orbital ‘shells’ of its first Starlink constellation as early as July, according to a report from a reliable source of SpaceX information.
The initial report tweeted on May 20th by reporter Alejandro Alcantarilla claimed that SpaceX was preparing to start launching “Group 3” of its first 4408-satellite Starlink constellation as early as July 2022. Less than a week later, those claims were confirmed when SpaceX applied for communications permits known as “special temporary authority” licenses or STAs for a launch known as “Starlink Group 3-1” no earlier than late June.
“Group 3” refers to one of five orbital “shells” that make up SpaceX’s 4408-satellite first-generation Starlink constellation. Each shell can be thought of more or less as, well, a shell – a thin layer of satellites more or less evenly distributed around the entire sphere of the Earth. Shells mainly differ by two measures: orbital inclination (the angle between a given orbit and the Earth’s equator) and orbital altitude (the distance from the orbit to the ground).
3168 (~72%) of 4408 Starlink Gen1 satellites are assigned to just two of those five shells and those two shells are where SpaceX has almost exclusively focused since it began operational Starlink launches in November 2019. Including satellites held in reserve, Group 1 or Shell 1 currently has 1450 of a nominal 1584 operational satellites in orbit. At one point, the constellation was fully populated, but some 205 of the 1665 V1.0 satellites SpaceX launched between November 2019 and May 2021 have been lost to a variety of anomalies. The vast majority performed controlled deorbits and reentered after failing but 28 failed completed and will take a few months to a few years to reenter.
SpaceX began launching Group/Shell 4 – nearly identical to Group 1 – in November 2021 and has sustained an unprecedented pace since then, launching 913 satellites – 866 of which are still working – in the last six months. If it continues to launch at that rate, all 1584 Group 4 satellites (and some spares) could be in orbit by the end of 2022.
Oddly, SpaceX also launched a single batch of 51 Group/Shell 2 Starlink satellites in September 2021 – possibly just a proof of concept for the first full batch of new laser-linked V1.5 spacecraft.
Regardless, Group 3 appears to be next and will mark the start of operational polar Starlink satellite launches. Also outfitted with laser links, those polar-orbiting spacecraft will be useful for connecting Starlink internet users at the extreme ends of the Earth. In the context of the optical network SpaceX is building in orbit, they may be even more useful for their routing capabilities, which could make it easier for aircraft or ships far from any nearby ground station to remain connected to the network almost anywhere on Earth. With just 348 satellites, it could take SpaceX only seven or eight Falcon 9 launches to complete Group 3.
According to Alcantarilla, the first two Starlink Group 3 missions are both scheduled to launch from SpaceX’s Vandenberg Space Force Base, California facilities as early as July, beginning with Starlink 3-1 on July 5th. In the meantime, SpaceX has no intention of slowing down its Starlink Group 4 launch cadence and will continue using its East Coast pads to their fullest as it pursues an average of at least one launch per week throughout 2022.