SpaceX successfully launched a new batch of 60 Starlink satellites into orbit today (April 22) and nailed a rocket landing at sea to cap the mission.
The extra-sooty Falcon 9 rocket — whose first stage had already flown three times before today’s mission — lifted off at 3:30 p.m. EDT (1930 GMT) from Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center here, its white exterior marred by its previous trips through the atmosphere. The launch marked the 84th Falcon 9 flight, making SpaceX’s workhorse rocket the most flown U.S. rocket in use today.
The rocket featured in today’s flight joins the ranks of SpaceX’s four-time fliers, having started its career by launching the Crew Dragon capsule on its first journey to the space station in 2019, an uncrewed flight called Demo-1. The booster then lofted a trio of Canadian Earth-observing satellites and the fourth Starlink mission earlier this year.
“We have a rocket,” SpaceX engineer Lauren Lyons said during a webcast of today’s launch. “This is the fourth landing for this booster.”
The Falcon 9 has now flown 84 times, more than any other currently operational U.S. rocket.
It was smooth sailing for SpaceX’s Starlink satellites in today’s launch, unlike the company’s last flight. On that mission, one of the nine first-stage engines on the Falcon 9 shut down early. SpaceX engineers later determined that a small amount of isopropyl alcohol (a cleaning agent) was trapped in an area it could not flow through, causing the early engine shutdown.
Today’s flight is the seventh operational Starlink mission, bringing the total number of satellites launched for the nascent broadband network up to 422. According to SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk, the company has plans to deorbit its two Starlink test satellites (Tin Tin A and Tin Tin B), which launched as part of a rideshare mission in 2018.
Already, SpaceX is the largest private satellite operator in existence – by a wide and growing margin. It’s also managed to keep up the frequent pace of its Starlink launches despite the global COVID-19 crisis, with its last launch taking place March 18. In total, it has flown four such missions since the start of the year, just four months into 2020.
The company has good reason to want to keep up that aggressive pace: Each launch brings it closer to the eventual launch of the Starlink broadband service that the satellites will provide the network backbone for. SpaceX wants that network to be live with coverage available in Canada and the Northern U.S. by sometime later this year, and because of the way its approach works, with small satellites orbiting much closer to Earth than traditional geostationary internet satellites and handing off the connection to one another as they pass the coverage area, they need a whole lot of them to provide stable, reliable, low-latency connections for consumers and businesses.
SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk detailed some of the measures that the company is taking to address complaints that its Starlink satellites are interfering with Earth-based observation of the night sky. The satellites produce lights and can present as light streams in astrophotography, and astronomers argue they interfere with stellar observation and research through Earth-based telescopes and observatories.
Today’s launch also included a recovery attempt for the Falcon 9 booster rocket used, which flew before on SpaceX’s Demo-1 Crew Dragon mission, as well as twice more in 2019. The Falcon 9 landed as planned on SpaceX’s drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean, hopefully marking a return to form after a couple of Falcon 9 booster landings went awry earlier this year.
SpaceX will also attempt to recover the fairing halves used to protect the Starlink satellite cargo during the launch, though not by using nets to catch them as they fall back to Earth slowed by parachutes, due to system upgrades. Instead, it’ll be looking to fish them out of the water, and we’ll update this post with those results, when and if SpaceX makes them available. The company is looking to re-use fairings more frequently, and the net capture process makes it easier to refurbish them for additional use. This is another cost-saving measure as SpaceX continues to strive towards full launch vehicle reusability with its Starship spacecraft, now in development.
Following today’s successful liftoff, the veteran Falcon 9 booster, landed on a floating platform at sea, marking the company’s 51st successful recovery. The next flight on SpaceX’s docket is another batch of Starlink satellites in May, followed by the company’s first crewed mission, Demo-2.
On May 27, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will climb aboard their Crew Dragon spacecraft and launch to the International Space Station for an extended stay. This flight will mark the first time humans have launched to orbit from U.S. soil since the end of NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011.