A Falcon 9 rocket took off from Cape Canaveral Wednesday with another batch of 60 Starlink internet satellites, achieving success on SpaceX’s 100th mission to launch from Florida’s Space Coast and clearing the way for liftoff of a NASA crew mission to the International Space Station later this month.
The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 launcher lifted off from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 12:34:18 p.m. EDT (1634:18 GMT) Wednesday and headed northeast over the Atlantic Ocean to deliver the 60 Starlink satellites into orbit.
The mission Wednesday was the first daytime rocket launch from Florida’s Space Coast since Jan. 24, ended a string of late night and predawn blastoffs in recent months.
After breaking the sound barrier and rocketing through the stratosphere, the Falcon 9 shut down its nine kerosene-fueled first stage engines about two-and-a-half minutes into the mission. Moments later, the first stage detached from the Falcon 9’s second stage, which ignited a single Merlin powerplant to continue climbing into space.
The first stage, meanwhile, arced downrange on a ballistic trajectory before re-entering the atmosphere and descending to a pinpoint landing on SpaceX’s drone ship named “Of Course I Still Love You” floating in the Atlantic about 400 miles (630 kilometers) northeast of Cape Canaveral.
The touchdown marked the end of the booster’s seventh trip to space and back since this first stage — tail number B1058 — debuted with a mission last May that carried NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken into orbit on the first piloted test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft.
Miss today’s launch? Here’s a replay of the Falcon 9 rocket firing off pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 12:34pm EDT (1634 GMT).
— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) April 7, 2021
The Falcon 9’s nose cone, which jettisoned soon after ignition of the second stage engine, was also reused from previous missions. The nose fairing’s two halves were expected to descend to a gentle splashdown in the Atlantic using parachutes, and a recovery boat was on station in the area to retrieve the two shells.
SpaceX has attempted to catch the fairing halves using giant nets affixed to two recovery boats, but that technique proved difficult and unnecessary. Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, said this week that the company will fish the fairing halves out of the sea going forward.
The boats with the fairing recovery nets — named Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief — only managed to catch descending payload shrouds a few times. The nets were designed to prevent damage to the fairing shells from salt water, but SpaceX has managed to recover, refurbish, and reuse the fairing halves after they splashed down in the ocean.
Crews have removed the nets and other fairing recovery equipment from the Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief vessels at Port Canaveral, and one of the boats has already left Florida.
While recovery teams in the Atlantic worked to secure the booster and payload fairing, the Falcon 9’s second stage — the only significant part of the rocket not reusable — completed two engine firings to place the 60 Starlink satellites into the proper orbit for deployment.
The 60 flat-panel satellites released from the second stage at 1:38 p.m. EDT (1738 GMT), about 64 minutes into the mission, while they flew at an altitude of 184 miles (297 kilometers) near New Zealand.
The Starlink spacecraft will next use their on-board electric thrusters to reach an operating altitude of 341 miles (550 kilometers) to join more than 1,300 other Starlink satellites providing consumer internet service.
— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) April 7, 2021
Wednesday’s launch was SpaceX’s 10th Falcon 9 mission so far in 2021, a record pace for SpaceX to start a year. It was the 116th flight of a Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy rocket since 2010, and the 100th to take off from a launch pad in Florida.
With this mission, SpaceX has deployed 1,445 Starlink satellites on 26 launches, including prototypes and failed spacecraft. The active fleet of Starlink spacecraft reached roughly 1,380 satellites with the fresh data relay stations that launched Wednesday.
That’s more than six times as many active satellites as owned by any other single operator.
The Starlink fleet will have the capacity to deliver uninterrupted internet service to consumers with a few more launches, according to Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer.
The Federal Communications Commission has authorized SpaceX to deploy some 12,000 Starlink satellites operating at Ku-band, Ka-band, and V-band frequencies, and at a range of altitudes and inclinations in low Earth orbit.
SpaceX has been testing the Starlink network’s speed and latency since last year through a beta testing program. Customers in the northern United States, Canada, parts of Europe, Australia, and New Zealand are already participating in the beta testing.
Speaking on a virtual panel arranged as part of the Satellite 2021 industry conference, Shotwell said Tuesday that SpaceX is focusing hitting “performance marks” before transitioning the Starlink network into full-scale commercial service.
“We still have a lot of work to do to make the network reliable,” Shotwell said. “We still have drops, not necessarily just because of where the satellites are in the sky. So we’ll move off of beta when we have a really great product that we are very proud of.
“Most of the folks that have signed up on the beta program … either were completely disconnected and desperate and just loving the fact that they can do anything online, or they’re pretty tech savvy folks who are testing the network, giving us feedback,” she said. “So I think the beta phase is very helpful.”
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 later this year, 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.
While SpaceX has hinted that the Starlink network might one day number as many as 42,000 satellites, Shotwell said the actual number of Starlink spacecraft in orbit at any given time will hinge on market demand.
“The plan is to operate a network that is very reliable, low latency, and accessible to everybody, literally, on the planet,” she said Tuesday. “And we’ll add satellites to add capacity. Once we have the network, the mesh network, then basically every new launch just adds capacity, so we’ll be able to monitor how things are going and how is our service, and if it’s good and people like it, then we’ll continue to add satellites as we’re allowed.”
Future Falcon 9 launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California will deploy Starlink satellites into polar orbits to expand the reach of the network and enable internet service in the Arctic and Antarctica, a capability desired by the U.S. military, one of the Starlink program’s most lucrative markets.
Read our earlier story for details on Starlink launches from Vandenberg.
Shotwell predicted Tuesday that the Starlink network will be able to serve “every rural household in the United States” in three-to-five years.
“We’re doing those analyses for other countries as well,” she said. “Our focus initially is the U.S. because they speak English, and they’re close, and if they have a problem with their dish, we can get one shipped out quickly. But we definitely want to expand this capability beyond the U.S. and Canada.”
One big challenge is reducing the cost of building antennas for consumers to receive internet signals from Starlink satellites. The terminals can automatically switch from satellite-to-satellite as the Starlink spacecraft fly overhead.
Shotwell said SpaceX is currently building Starlink user terminals for less than $1,500, down from an earlier cost of $3,000 per unit.
“We are not charging our customers what it costs us to build those terminals right now,” Shotwell said. “But we do see our terminals coming in the few hundred dollar range within the next year or two.”
Crew mission next on SpaceX’s launch schedule
With Wednesday’s Starlink launch in the books, SpaceX’s next Falcon 9 mission will carry the next crew of four astronauts into orbit on the way to the International Space Station.
SpaceX teams in Florida are readying a previously-flown Falcon 9 booster and a reused Crew Dragon capsule for the mission, which is set for liftoff April 22 at 6:11 a.m. EDT (1011 GMT) from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
NASA commander Shane Kimbrough, pilot Megan McArthur, Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet will ride the Crew Dragon “Endeavour” spacecraft to the space station, kicking off an expedition scheduled to last about six months.
Their mission, known as Crew-2, is the second operational Crew Dragon mission for NASA under a multibillion-dollar contact between the space agency and SpaceX. Assuming a launch April 22, the Crew-2 astronauts are scheduled to dock with the International Space Station on April 23.
Kimbrough and his crewmates will replace the Crew-1 mission, which launched Nov. 15 from the Kennedy Space Center on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon “Resilience” capsule. The Crew-1 astronauts are scheduled to depart the space station and splash down off the coast of Florida on April 28.
The crew launch later this month will be the first Falcon 9 flight since January not dedicated to hauling up Starlink internet satellites. The last seven Falcon 9 launches have each delivered 60 Starlink spacecraft into orbit.
Email the author.
Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.