SpaceX Launches Another Batch of Starlink Satellites

 In Space

A Falcon 9 rocket blasts off from pad 39A at 8:25 a.m. EDT (1225 GMT Sunday. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX launched 60 more Starlink inter­net relay plat­forms into orbit Sunday as the com­pa­ny ramps up net­work test­ing in Washington state and touts a streak of nearly 300 satel­lites launched since June with­out a space­craft fail­ure.

Nine Merlin 1D engines fired up and pow­ered the Falcon 9 rocket off pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 8:25:57 a.m. EDT (1225:57 GMT) Sunday, mark­ing the 14th Falcon 9 mis­sion ded­i­cat­ed to deploy­ing satel­lites for SpaceX’s Starlink broad­band net­work.

The kerosene-fed engines throt­tled up to pro­duce 1.7 mil­lion pounds of thrust, dri­ving the Falcon 9 rocket to the north­east from the Florida’s Space Coast. Two-and-a-half min­utes later, the first stage boost­er shut down its engines and detached to begin descend­ing toward SpaceX’s drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” in the Atlantic Ocean.

The second stage’s single Merlin engine ignit­ed to con­tin­ue the mis­sion into orbit, and the Falcon 9’s two-piece nose shroud jet­ti­soned nearly three-and-a-half min­utes into the flight.

The 15-story first stage boost­er nailed its land­ing on SpaceX’s drone ship around 400 miles (630 kilo­me­ters) north­east of Cape Canaveral. It was the sixth trip to space and back for this par­tic­u­lar boost­er — des­ig­nat­ed B1051 — after its debut on an unpilot­ed test flight of the Crew Dragon space­craft in March 2019.

At the same time, the Falcon 9’s upper stage deliv­ered the 60 Starlink inter­net satel­lites into a pre­lim­i­nary orbit. The upper stage engine later reignit­ed to maneu­ver the pay­loads into a near-cir­cu­lar orbit 172 miles (278 kilo­me­ters) above Earth, with an incli­na­tion of 53 degrees to the equa­tor.

The 60 flat-panel satel­lites sep­a­rat­ed from the rocket at 9:29 a.m. EDT (1329 GMT) to con­clude SpaceX’s 70th straight suc­cess­ful mis­sion. A camera on the upper stage showed the 60 satel­lites — each with a mass of about a quar­ter-ton — flying free of the Falcon 9 over the Indian Ocean.

“Great way to start off a Sunday,” said Andy Tran, a pro­duc­tion super­vi­sor at SpaceX who hosted the company’s launch web­cast Sunday.

SpaceX said its two fair­ing recov­ery ships caught both halves of the fair­ing from Sunday’s launch as the clamshells came back to Earth under para­chutes. The net on one of the ves­sels gave way as the fair­ing set­tled into orbit, but SpaceX said its ocean-going recov­ery team was OK.

With the satel­lites launched Sunday, SpaceX has placed 835 Starlink broad­band relay sta­tions into orbit, includ­ing pro­to­types that won’t be used for com­mer­cial ser­vice. That extends SpaceX’s lead in oper­at­ing the largest fleet of satel­lites in orbit.

The new Starlink space­craft, built by SpaceX in Redmond, Washington, were expect­ed to unfurl solar panels and acti­vate kryp­ton ion thrusters to begin rais­ing their alti­tude to rough­ly 341 miles (550 kilo­me­ters), where they will begin pro­vid­ing broad­band ser­vice.

SpaceX plans to oper­ate an ini­tial block of around 1,500 Starlink satel­lites in orbits 341 miles above Earth. The com­pa­ny, found­ed by bil­lion­aire Elon Musk, has reg­u­la­to­ry approval from the Federal Communications Commission to even­tu­al­ly field a fleet of up to 12,000 small Starlink broad­band sta­tions oper­at­ing in Ku-band, Ka-band, and V‑band fre­quen­cies.

There are also pre­lim­i­nary plans for an even larger fleet of 30,000 addi­tion­al Starlink satel­lites, but a net­work of that size has not been autho­rized by the FCC.

SpaceX says the Starlink net­work — designed for low-laten­cy inter­net ser­vice — is “still in its early stages,” and engi­neers con­tin­ue test­ing the system to col­lect laten­cy data and speed tests. In a filing with the FCC dated Oct. 13, SpaceX said it has start­ed beta test­ing of the Starlink net­work in mul­ti­ple U.S. states, and is pro­vid­ing inter­net con­nec­tiv­i­ty to pre­vi­ous­ly unserved stu­dents in rural areas.

On Sept. 28, the Washington Military Department announced it was using the Starlink inter­net ser­vice as emer­gency respon­ders and res­i­dents in Malden, Washington, recov­er from a wild­fire that destroyed much of the town.

Earlier this month, Washington gov­ern­ment offi­cials said the Hoh Tribe was start­ing to use the Starlink ser­vice. SpaceX said it recent­ly installed Starlink ground ter­mi­nals on an admin­is­tra­tive build­ing and about 20 pri­vate homes on the Hoh Tribe Reservation.

“We’ve very remote,” said Melvinjohn Ashue, vice chair­man of the Hoh Tribe. “The last eight years, I’ve felt like we have been pad­dling up river with a spoon and almost get­ting nowhere with get­ting inter­net to the reser­va­tion.

“It seemed like out of nowhere, SpaceX just came up and just cat­a­pult­ed us into the 21st cen­tu­ry,” Ashue said Oct. 7. “Our youth are able to do edu­ca­tion on line, par­tic­i­pate in videos. Tele-health is no longer going to be an issue, as well as tele-mental health.”

In an FCC filing last week, SpaceX rep­re­sen­ta­tives wrote that the com­pa­ny had suc­cess­ful­ly launched and oper­at­ed nearly 300 new Starlink space­craft since June with­out a fail­ure.

“SpaceX con­tin­ues invest­ing in its rapid net­work deploy­ment, includ­ing launch­ing as many as 120 satel­lites a month and installing exten­sive ground infra­struc­ture across the coun­try,” SpaceX told the FCC.

SpaceX appears to be on pace to launch more than 120 satel­lites in the month of October.

The com­pa­ny added 60 satel­lites to the Starlink net­work with a Falcon 9 launch Oct. 6, and put up anoth­er 60 space­craft Sunday. A Falcon 9 rocket is ten­ta­tive­ly sched­uled for liftoff from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 12:36 p.m. EDT (1636 GMT) Wednesday with anoth­er flock of Starlink satel­lites.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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