SpaceX launches 25th mission for Starlink internet network

Another 60 Starlink internet satellites rumbled into orbit aboard a Falcon 9 rocket early Wednesday from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, the 25th mission to launch spacecraft for SpaceX’s broadband network.

The Falcon 9 lifted off from pad 40 at 4:28:24 a.m. EDT (0828:24 GMT) Wednesday powered by nine kerosene-fueled Merlin 1D main engines. The engines steered the rocket toward the northeast from Cape Canaveral with 1.7 million pounds of thrust.

After arcing through a high-altitude cloud layer, the launcher shed its first stage booster and ignited a second stage engine to accelerate the 60 Starlink satellites into orbit.

The 15-story booster, meanwhile, descended to an on-target landing on a SpaceX drone ship stationed in the Atlantic Ocean roughly 400 miles (630 kilometers) northeast of Florida’s Space Coast. The landing platform will return to Port Canaveral for SpaceX to inspect, refurbish, and reuse the booster on another flight.

The booster used on Wednesday’s mission — designated B1060 in SpaceX’s fleet — made its sixth trip to space and back since debuting last June. It was the 78th successful recovery of a Falcon booster since 2015.

A Falcon 9 rocket streaks into space early Wednesday over Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Credit: SpaceX

The clamshell-like payload shroud that covered the Starlink satellites during the first few minutes of flight were expected to parachute into the Atlantic, where a recovery vessel planned to retrieve the two fairing halves to bring back to Florida for refurbishment.

The second stage engine placed the stack of Starlink satellites into a parking orbit nearly nine minutes after liftoff. The rocket crossed the Atlantic Ocean, soared over Europe and the Middle East, then reignited its engine for a one-second orbital adjustment burn over the Indian Ocean.

The rocket deployed the 60 flat-panel broadband satellites a little more than an hour into the mission at 5:13 a.m. EDT (0913 GMT), punctuating SpaceX’s ninth Falcon 9 launch of the year, and the fourth since the beginning of March.

It was the 23rd Falcon 9 launch dedicated to deploying Starlink satellites. Two other missions carried Starlink payloads as secondary passengers.

SpaceX’s next Falcon 9 launch is scheduled for early April to deliver another batch of Starlink satellites to orbit, continuing a rapid-fire cadence of missions.

The launch Wednesday was the 120th flight of a Falcon rocket, coming 15 years to the day after the first launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 1 rocket March 24, 2006. The Falcon 1 failed seconds after liftoff, brought down by a fuel leak and engine fire that led to the rocket’s crash near its launch pad on an island at Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean.

SpaceX has racked up 87 straight successful missions with its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets since a pre-launch explosion destroyed a rocket with its Israeli-owned communications satellite in September 2016. Not counting that accident, SpaceX has strung together a streak of 96 Falcon launches in a row since the last mission-ending in-flight failure.

A Falcon 9 rocket lifts off at 4:28:24 a.m. EDT (0828:24 GMT) Wednesday from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

With Wednesday’s launch, SpaceX has sent 1,385 Starlink satellites into orbit on a series of Falcon 9 missions. Some of those satellites were prototypes and have re-entered the atmosphere and burned up. Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and a respected tracker of spaceflight activity, said SpaceX had about 1,260 Starlink satellites still in orbit before Sunday’s mission.

The Starlink network could eventually number more than 10,000 satellites, but the first tranche of Starlinks will have 1,584 satellites orbiting 341 miles (550 kilometers) above Earth on paths tilted 53 degrees to the equator. The 60 fresh satellites launched Wednesday will deploy their solar panels and activate krypton-fueled ion thrusters to raise their altitude before entering service in the Starlink network.

SpaceX has approval from the Federal Communications Commission for around 12,000 Starlink satellites at a range of altitudes and inclinations, all within a few hundred miles of the planet. The low altitude enables the satellites to deliver high-speed, low-latency connectivity to customers, and helps ensure the spacecraft naturally re-enter the atmosphere faster than if they flew farther from Earth.

Starlink is already providing interim beta service across high latitude regions, such as the northern United States, Canada, and England. More Starlink launches this year will enable an expanded coverage area.

SpaceX announced earlier this month that the Starlink beta service will soon begin reaching customers in Germany, New Zealand, and in other regions of the United Kingdom, including Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and northern England. Those areas could receive beta service in the “coming weeks,” SpaceX said.

SpaceX is accepting pre-orders from would-be Starlink consumers, who can pay $99 to reserve their place in line to get Starlink service when it becomes available in their area. For people in the southern United States and other lower-latitude regions, that should come by late 2021, SpaceX says.

Once confirmed, customers will pay $499 for a Starlink antenna and modem, plus $50 in shipping and handling, SpaceX says. A subscription will run $99 per month.

The Starlink satellites are built by SpaceX in Redmond, Washington, and each spacecraft weighs about a quarter-ton at liftoff. A fully-loaded stack of 60 Starlink satellites weighs about 34,400 pounds, or 15.6 metric tons.

SpaceX has fitted newer versions of the satellites with visors to dim their brightness to people on the ground. Engineers introduced the change to Starlink satellites last year after astronomers raised concerns the spacecraft would ruin some telescopic observations.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.