SpaceX deploys 49 more Starlink satellites in first launch of 2022

SpaceX’s first launch of 2022 carried 49 more Starlink satellites into orbit. Credit: Michael Cain / Spaceflight Now / Coldlife Photography

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket took off Thursday from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and deployed 49 more Starlink internet satellites, blazing a new trail to orbit on the first of as many as seven space missions planned from Florida in January.

The mission began with a booming blastoff from pad 39A at 4:49:10 p.m. EST (2149:10 GMT) Thursday. It ended 15-and-a-half minutes later with the successful separation of the 49 Starlink satellites, joining more than 1,000 more spacecraft already in orbit beaming broadband internet signals around the world.

The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 rocket headed southeast from Kennedy Space Center over the Atlantic Ocean, tracking just north of the Bahamas on an unusual course to place the Starlink satellites into an orbit inclined 53.2 degrees to the equator.

Previous SpaceX missions heading to similar orbits have trekked northeast from the Florida coastline, but a trajectory to the southeast can reach the same orbit. Launchers have typically not gone southeast from Cape Canaveral to avoid flying over populated areas, or sparing rocket performance to steer around islands.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket traveled high above the Atlantic just north of the Bahamas, where the reusable booster stage landed on the company’s drone ship to conclude its fourth trip to space and back. The Falcon 9’s second stage then performed a slight right turn to line up with the proper orbital plane for the Starlink satellites.

The launcher jettisoned its clamshell-like payload fairing nearly three minutes into the mission. SpaceX’s recovery team aimed to retrieve the two shells, which are also reusable, from the ocean for refurbishment and assignment to a future flight. The fairing halves flown Thursday were making their fourth and fifth climbs into space.

Jessica Anderson, a SpaceX production engineer who hosted the company’s live launch webcast, said the change in trajectory from the northeast to the southeast is intended to increase odds of good booster and fairing recovery conditions in the winter months.

High winds and rough seas can be problematic for SpaceX’s recovery teams on the northerly route, off the coast of the Carolinas.

The Falcon 9’s second stage injected the 49 Starlink satellites into orbit about nine minutes into the mission, reaching an altitude close to pre-flight predictions, according to SpaceX. The mission targeted an orbit ranging in altitude between 134 miles and 210 miles (210 kilometers and 339 kilometers).

The satellites, each about a quarter-ton in mass, will unfurl solar arrays and switch on their krypton-fueled ion engines to climb into their operational orbit at an altitude if around 335 miles (540 kilometers).

The mission Thursday, designated Starlink 4-5, was SpaceX’s 34th dedicated launch with Starlink satellites.

Dedicated Falcon 9 launches with SpaceX’s latest generation of Starlink spacecraft have carried between 48 and 53 satellites per mission. SpaceX has now launched 1,993 Starlink satellites to date.

But not all of those satellites remain in orbit. Some have failed after launch, and SpaceX has intentionally de-orbited others, either due to technical problems or obsolescence as newer designs reach orbit.

A tabulation by Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist and expert tracker of spaceflight activity, shows SpaceX has 1,468 satellites providing Starlink internet service as of this week.

SpaceX has a long-term plan to launch as many as 42,000 Starlink satellites, according to a company filing with the International Telecommunication Union. The company’s initial focus is on deploying thousands of satellites into five orbital “shells.”

The 53.2-degree inclination shell, the target for Thursday’s launch is one of five orbital “shells” at different inclination angles that SpaceX plans to fill with around 4,400 satellites to provide high-speed, low-latency broadband connectivity around the world. The first shell, at 53.0 degrees, was filled with its full complement of satellites last May.

Anderson, the SpaceX engineer and webcast host, said Thursday that the Starlink network is now live in 25 countries and regions, serving more than 145,000 users worldwide.

SpaceX hopes to use revenue from the Starlink business unit to help fund the company’s ambitions to complete development of the heavy-lift Starship rocket, a massive fully reusable launcher designed to eventually replace the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.

With the first launch of the year in the books, the Florida Space Coast is set to host the liftoff of as many as six additional space missions in January, according to Space Launch Delta 45, the U.S. Space Force unit that oversees range operations at the Florida spaceport.

The next launch is set for Jan. 13 with dozens of small satellites from U.S. and international customers. That mission, known as Transporter 3, is SpaceX’s third dedicated rideshare launch hauling smallsats into a sun-synchronous orbit.

Liftoff time Jan. 13 at launch pad 40 is set for 10:25 a.m. EST (1525 GMT), and SpaceX is expected to land the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage on an onshore recovery zone at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

Another launch is scheduled for Jan. 18 from pad 46, when the small satellite launch company Astra plans to send a handful of CubeSats into orbit for NASA. It will be the first launch of Astra’s smallsat rocket from Cape Canaveral.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket is scheduled to lift off Jan. 21 from pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, with a pair of military satellites to track spacecraft and debris in geosynchronous orbit.

SpaceX is set to launch another Falcon 9 rocket Jan. 24 from pad 40 with the second Italian COSMO-SkyMed Second Generation radar remote sensing satellite, known as CSG 2.

Two more Falcon 9 flights with Starlink satellites are slated this month, bringing the total tally to seven missions on the range schedule at Cape Canaveral. Launch dates for the next two Starlink missions were unavailable Thursday.

In a press release this week, the Space Force said five of the seven launches planned this month will head southeast or south from Cape Canaveral, a direction that was inaccessible for decades for rockets taking off from Cape Canaveral. In 2019, SpaceX launched the first polar orbit mission from Florida since 1969, and has since flown two more southerly launches on trajectories parallel to Florida’s east coast.

The Starlink launch Thursday was SpaceX’s first to fly southeast out of Kennedy Space Center or Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

The Transporter 3 and CSG 2 missions later this month will also fly south from Cape Canaveral, while the next two Starlink missions are expected to launch on similar paths as the Starlink 4-5 flight Thursday.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.