SpaceX launches 60 Starlink satellites and lands rocket in dazzling nighttime liftoff
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The launch is the second in five days for the California-based rocket builder. On Saturday (May 30), a different Falcon 9 rocket sent NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley toward the International Space Station aboard a Crew Dragon capsule, kicking of SpaceX’s landmark Demo-2 mission. The duo docked with the orbiting lab about 19 hours later and will remain there from one to four months.
In stark contrast to Saturday’s shiny new booster, today’s mission featured a veteran member of SpaceX’s rocket fleet. The extra-sooty Falcon 9 — whose first stage had already flown four times before today’s mission — lifted off at 9:25 p.m. EDT (0125 GMT on June 4) from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station here in Florida, its white exterior scorched by its previous trips through the atmosphere.
(Image credit: SpaceX)
(Image credit: SpaceX)
(Image credit: SpaceX)
The rocket featured in today’s flight is the second Falcon 9 first stage to fly five times. The booster previously launched two other Starlink missions as well as a batch of Iridium NEXT satellites and a Canadian communications satellite.
SpaceX’s first attempt to fly a booster five times did not go as smoothly. That first stage, which launched 60 Starlink satellites this past March, experienced an engine anomaly as it climbed into the sky. Though the satellites got to orbit as planned, the booster missed its landing on a droneship at sea and was destroyed.
An investigation into the incident revealed that some residual cleaning agent got trapped in the engine and caused the anomaly. Since then, SpaceX has changed its procedures.
Today’s rocket landing involved the droneship “Just Read the Instructions,” which finally saw some action after months of refurbishment. The ship, previously based on the West Coast, made the move to the East Coast last year. This is the first mission it was used for since the big move. That’s because SpaceX’s other and primary droneship, “Of Course I Still Love You,” was busy bringing the Demo-2 booster back to port. This is the first time that SpaceX has had both of its droneships operational in the same ocean.
Today’s flight is the eighth 60-satellite mission for SpaceX’s Starlink project, bringing the total number of satellites launched for the nascent broadband network up to 482. (SpaceX launched two Starlink prototypes in February 2018.) The launch was originally scheduled to take off in mid-May but was postponed due to poor weather and schedule conflicts.
SpaceX has plans to build a constellation of Starlink satellites 12,000 strong. The project is designed to provide high-speed internet service to customers around the world, in particular those in remote areas.
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has said that at least 400 Starlink craft are needed before SpaceX can begin to roll out minimal internet coverage, and the company requires at least 800 satellites to provide moderate coverage. That service could start later this year.
Thanks to the sheer number of satellites in orbit, SpaceX is operating the largest satellite fleet ever. Ever since its first launch, the company has come under fire from astronomers and scientists around the world over concerns that the constellation’s apparent brightness will disrupt astronomical observations.
This SpaceX graphic depicts the sunshades to limit the reflectivity of the company’s Starlink internet satellites. (Image credit: SpaceX)
To that end, SpaceX has been experimenting with different ways of reducing the satellites’ brightness. Musk and SpaceX have said that they will be adding special sunshades to future Starlink satellites. These will act as a visor of sorts that limits the craft’s reflectivity. The first such visor-equipped Starlink craft took flight on today’s mission, SpaceX representatives said.
According to a report in SpaceNews, Patricia Cooper, SpaceX’s vice president of satellite government relations, said the sunshades will be added to all future satellites after the final 80 of the current design have launched.
For this launch, SpaceX continued its efforts to recover more of the rocket. The company deployed its two boats that are designed to catch falling payload fairings — GO Ms. Tree and GO Ms. Chief.
Acting as mobile catcher’s mitts, the twin vessels are outfitted with giant nets that the fairings will glide into. The fairings are clam-shelled coverings that protect payloads during liftoff. Historically, this hardware has been a “one-and-done” component.
Once a rocket reaches a certain point in its ascent, the two pieces that make up SpaceX fairings are jettisoned and fall back to Earth. Typically, these pieces are discarded in the ocean, never to be used again. But for SpaceX, which has now successfully recovered more than 50 first-stage boosters, they’re the next step in the company’s quest to reuse more of the rocket.
SpaceX could save as much as $6 million per flight by reusing fairings, Musk has said. So, the company has outfitted its fairings with a navigation system to steer each half back to Earth and a parachute to help it gently land in either the ocean or in the outstretched nets of the company’s recovery ships.
To date, SpaceX has recovered several fairings and reflown recycled fairing pieces three times.
Of those vessels, only GO Ms. Tree (the boat formerly known as Mr. Steven) has successfully snagged falling fairings. The ships recently received some new software upgrades, and today’s mission marked their first trip out sporting those upgrades.
But in order to get Starlink up and running, SpaceX needs to do more than just launch satellites. The company also needs user terminals — and it’s already working to make that happen. In March of this year, SpaceX was granted approval for up to one million user terminals as part of a blanket license.
The hardware will be simple enough that anyone can install it, according to Musk, who has said the terminals look like a “UFO on a stick.” The terminals will come with just two basic instructions — plug in and point at the sky — and are equipped with actuators that ensure they’re pointing where they should be at all times, Musk has said.
Following today’s successful liftoff, the veteran Falcon 9 booster landed on a floating platform at sea, marking the company’s 53rd successful recovery. SpaceX has two more flights on the docket for June: another batch of Starlink satellites as well as an upgraded GPS satellite for the U.S. Space Force.