CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida - SpaceX successfully launched dozens of Starlink Internet Satellites and two small Earth-imaging satellites into or...
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida - SpaceX successfully launched dozens of Starlink Internet Satellites and two small Earth-imaging satellites into orbit Friday (August 7) in the second of what is expected to be a series of Starlink carpooling missions.
A two-stage Falcon 9 rocket carrying 57 Starlink SpaceX satellites, along with two BlackSky Global Earth Observation satellites, lifted off at 1:12 a.m. EDT (05:12 GMT) from Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
This was the fifth launch of the first leg of this Falcon 9, and the booster made another landing this morning, settling gently on the deck of the SpaceX "Of Course I Still Love You" droneship in the Atlantic Ocean about eight minutes after liftoff.
This is SpaceX's 10th Starlink mission since 2019 and the company's 12th global mission for 2020. SpaceX relies on its fleet of used and flight-proven thrusters to maintain a fast launch rate. The company had an exceptional summer with the launch and landing of two NASA astronauts on the Demo-2 Mission to the International Space Station - a first for a private company - and will not slow down anytime soon.
The third time was the charm of SpaceX as its Falcon 9 rocket came alive and lit up the night sky over Florida's Space Coast. Night launches are always a breathtaking spectacle, and this one didn't disappoint. The rumble of the nine rocket engines seemed particularly loud tonight and could still be heard even after the rocket disappeared.
Hidden inside the nose cone of the Falcon 9 was a stack of 57 satellites broadcasting the Internet. Part of SpaceX's Starlink megaconstellation, the satellites will join hundreds already in orbit. To date, the company has launched 595 Starlink satellites to complete the huge constellation.
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said SpaceX needed 400 to 800 Starlink satellites in orbit to begin deploying minimal coverage. As that goal is getting closer, SpaceX has been teasing the arrival of a beta program, which will help the company test the service for eventual global consumption.
SpaceX is also taking other steps to make the Starlink service a reality. For example, the company hasobtained approval from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission for up to onemillion user terminals.
Musk has stated that he wants the terminals to be easy to use. Resembling a "UFO on a stick," as Musk calls it, each terminal is equipped with actuators to ensure that it points to the sky at all times. All a user has to do is plug it in and point it at the sky.
Today, two small Earth observation satellites for BlackSky were hitchhiking with the Starlink battery. Carpooling was organized by another company called Spaceflight, which finds routes in space for smaller satellites. SpaceX also has its own carpooling program, which books small satellites directly instead of using a third-party service. (Three small Earth observation satellites built by the company Planet flew on the previous Starlink mission last month, in a deal booked directly through SpaceX).
The Starlink satellites on this mission are slightly different from those launched previously. That's because they are equipped with a special visor that will help reduce their apparent brightness.
The umbrella, as SpaceX calls it, is a deployable visor designed to prevent sunlight from reflecting off the brightest parts of the satellites, such as the antennas. The company-along with astronomers and dark sky advocates around the world-hopes to reduce the overall brightness of the Starlink fleet. This will allow them to appear as dark as possible in the night sky, minimizing their impact on night sky observations.
When the first set of Starlink satellites was launched, it caught the astronomical community off guard because the satellites appeared brighter in the sky than SpaceX had anticipated. Scientists around the world expressed disapproval, fearing that the bright satellites would hinder scientific observations.
A previous Starlink launch in June included a satellite equipped with the experimental visor; today's mission is the first in which all 57 wear it.
The first stage of the Falcon 9 featured in today's mission is now a five-times aircraft, as it previously launched the Demo-1 Mission in 2019, which sent an unmanned Crew Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station; a trio of Earth observation satellites for Canada; and two Starlink Missions this year.
It is the third Falcon 9 booster to be launched five times, and the second to be launched and landed successfully five times. The first booster to be launched five times, designated B1048 by SpaceX, suffered a flight anomaly. There was residual cleaner trapped inside a part of the engine, causing the booster to miss its intended landing on the UAV. (The booster, however, delivered the payload into orbit without any problems).
SpaceX has subsequently changed its refurbishment techniques and has now launched and recovered two different boosters five times. Each of them should soon be flying again, especially if SpaceX is going to maintain its fast launch rate.
The first stage of the Falcon 9 successfully landed on the SpaceX drone "Of course I still love you" about eight minutes after take-off. To do so, the booster separated from its upper stage and performed a series of orbital ballet movements, reorienting itself for landing. The rocket conducted a series of three engine burns to slow down enough to gently touch the deck of a floating platform.
The huge drone, stationed in the Atlantic Ocean, is one of two ships that SpaceX uses to catch its return thrusters. To date, the company has successfully retrieved 56 first-stage boosters. Once back in Port Canaveral, Florida, the boosters are transported to SpaceX's facilities, where they are carefully inspected and reused to fly again.
The current iteration of the Falcon 9 was completed in 2018. Known as Block 5, it has 1.7 million pounds of thrust as well as other enhancements that make it capable of rapid reuse. SpaceX boasts that each of these boosters can fly up to 10 times with minor upgrades in between, and up to 100 times before retirement. (To date, SpaceX has launched and landed the same booster a maximum of five times).
Rapid reuse, coupled with the fact that the company now has two drones to retrieve its first-stage boosters, means the company can launch more frequently. SpaceX was launched a total of four times between late May and late June, and plans to carry out a number of launches until the end of 2020.
Prior to today's launch, SpaceX deployed its two fairing sensors, GO Ms. Tree and GO Miss Chief. These two ships act as giant, mobile receiver mittens, hanging the payload fairings in their attached nets when they fall back to Earth. Whether or not they are able to make a catch depends on many factors, including the weather.
To facilitate reuse, SpaceX has equipped its payload fairings (also known as rocket nose cones) with parachutes and software that guides them to the recovery area. If Ms. Tree or Ms. Chief are unable to catch the fairings, which return to Earth in two pieces, the boats can pick them up out of the water and bring them back to port.
Once back in Port Canaveral, the fairings (along with the booster) are refurbished and reused, as long as they are intact. SpaceX has refitted fairings several times, most of which have been recovered from the ocean and refurbished. However, on a recent mission, the dynamic pair of boats made their first double take, hanging both fairings down.
Today's launch was the third attempt to get this particular mission off the ground. The launch was originally scheduled for mid-June, but was delayed due to the need for additional rocket checks. Another attempt on July 8 was cancelled due to bad weather at the launch site.