CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched a new batch of 60 Starlink internet satellites into orbit on Wednesday evening (April 28) and nailed a landing at sea to top off a successful mission.
The veteran Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Space Launch Complex 40 here at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 11:44 p.m. EDT (0344 April 29 GMT), marking the company's 10th launch of the year.
"The Falcon 9 first stage has landed for its seventh time," SpaceX engineer Jessie Anderson said during the launch broadcast. "This marks our 81st recovery of an orbital class rocket."
Approximately nine minutes later, the rocket's first stage returned to Earth, touching down on SpaceX's drone ship "Just Read the Instructions," for its seventh successful landing.
The launch marked the third of the evening, as Arianespace launched a Vega rocket from Kourou, French Guiana roughly two hours earlier, at 9:50 p.m. EDT (0150 GMT on April 29). China then launched the core module of its next space station at 11:23 p.m. EST (0323 GMT on April 29), followed by SpaceX.
SpaceX is continuing the rapid launch pace set last year, as the Hawthorne, California-based rocket builder celebrated its 12th launch so far in 2021. The majority of those launches have been SpaceX's own Starlink satellites, as the company surpasses its initial internet constellation of 1,440 broadband satellites.
That constellation could eventually be tens of thousands of satellites strong as SpaceX has permission to launch as many as 30,000, with an option for even more.
Forecasters at the 45th Space Wing's Weather Squadron predicted favorable conditions at launch and the weather did not disappoint.
The booster for Wednesday's launch, called B1060, is one of SpaceX's fleet of flight-proven boosters. The veteran flier now has seven launches and landings under its belt as the company has plans to push its Falcon 9 rockets to the limit.
B1060 made its debut in June 2020, when it carried an upgraded GPS III satellite into space for the U.S. Space Force. That mission was the first time that the military gave SpaceX the green light to go ahead and recover the booster. (Previously, all military missions flew on expendable rockets.)
Once the booster returned to Port, it was prepared for its next mission: to carry a stack of Starlink internet satellites into space. Following back-to-back Starlink missions, the veteran booster then carried a communications satellite into space for Turkey.
Its subsequent missions have all contained Starlink payloads. Wednesday's flight marks the fifth load of the broadband satellites that this particular booster has carried into space. SpaceX has been using its previously flown boosters with the most miles to transport its own satellites into space.
This is the 115th overall flight for Falcon 9, and the 61st flight of a used, refurbished booster. In fact, every single SpaceX launch so far in 2021 has been on a flight-proven rocket.
When the upgraded Falcon 9 debuted in 2018, SpaceX Founder and CEO Elon Musk told reporters that the company expected each Falcon 9 to fly 10 times with few refurbishments in between flights, and as many as 100 times before retirement.
The company has learned a lot through the refurbishment process, and according to Musk, there doesn't seem to be a hard limit on the number of flights that any given Falcon 9 can fly.
"You probably don't want to be on a life leader for a crewed mission, but it's probably good to have a flight or two under its belt, for the booster to have flown once or twice," he said during a post-launch media call after the Crew-2 astronaut mission to the space station. "If it was an aircraft coming out of the factory, you'd want the aircraft to probably have gone through a test flight or two before you put passengers on."
"So I think that's probably a couple of flights is a good number for a crew booster, and in the meantime, we'll keep flying the life leader," Musk said. "We've got nine flights on one of the boosters. We're going to have a 10th flight soon with a Starlink mission."
Musk did indicate that the company would push the Falcons to the limit and keep flying them on Starlink missions until they break, which could well surpass the 10 flights previously predicted.
Having a fleet of flight-proven rockets at its disposal allows SpaceX to keep up with its rapid launch cadence. However, company officials have stressed that while losing a booster is unfortunate, the main objective of each mission is always to deliver the payload safely to its intended orbit. Anything beyond that is a bonus.
With Wednesday's launch success, SpaceX has launched more than 1,500 Starlink satellites into orbit, which includes some that are no longer operational. This goes beyond the company's initial quota, but there are many more launches coming as the company has sought approval for tens of thousands more.
SpaceX launched its massive internet constellation, to help provide internet coverage to the world, in particular those in remote and rural areas. To that end, company engineers designed a fleet of flat-paneled broadband satellites to fly over the Earth, beaming down internet coverage to users who can access the service via a compact user terminal.
Currently Starlink is still in its beta-testing phase with users in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Germany and New Zealand able to access the service. The company is currently taking preorders for the internet service but is planning for a full rollout later this year. Prospective users can go to the company's website and reserve the service with a $99 deposit right now.
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SpaceX is not the only company with aspirations of connecting the globe. OneWeb, Amazon and Telstar all have constellations of their own planned. However, OneWeb is currently the only other service with actual satellites in space.
The London-based company launched 36 of its satellites last month on a Russian Soyuz as it works to fill out its planned constellation containing 650 satellites. (To date, OneWeb has launched five of its planned 19 missions.)
There was a minor kerfuffle between SpaceX and OneWeb this month as OneWeb reported that one of its satellites had a 'close call' with one of SpaceX's Starlink satellites. More recent filings with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have shed some light on the incident, showing that there was no potential collision and that the situation was exaggerated.
SpaceX recently inked a deal with NASA to steer its satellites out of the way if there was any sort of close call with any one of the agency's satellites or the International Space Station. That only pertains to NASA though; currently there's no global or national regulation that would mandate one company to move its satellites out of the way of another entity.
In 2020, the space station had to adjust its orbit a number of times to avoid potential collisions with objects in orbit. So the creation of this Space Act Agreement with SpaceX is a huge step towards mitigating potential collisions.
Both of the fairing halves featured in Wednesday's mission are brand new, and with any luck, they will fly again soon.
That is, if they land intact. Thanks to onboard parachutes and navigation software, the clamshell-like hardware will glide itself back to Earth and gently splash down in the Atlantic Ocean. From there, the two fairing pieces will be pulled from the water by SpaceX's newest boat, a bright pink and blue vessel named Shelia Bordelon.
This is the third mission now for Shelia Bordelon, which uses an onboard crane to retrieve the fairings.
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