SpaceX adds 53 more Starlink satellites to internet constellation

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket fires its upper stage engine to propel 53 Starlink internet satellites into orbit. The rocket’s first stage booster and two halves of the payload fairing are visible returning to Earth for recovery and reuse. Credit: Gene Blevins / LA Daily News

SpaceX fired a Falcon 9 rocket off a launching stand in California at sunset Thursday, producing a twilight sky show visible as far away as Texas as the mission delivered 53 more Starlink internet satellites into orbit.

Powered by a first stage booster making its eighth flight, the Falcon 9 lifted off from Vandenberg Space Force Base about 140 miles (225 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles at 6:14:10 p.m. PDT (9:14:10 p.m. EDT; 0114:10 GMT). Nine Merlin engines powered rocket southeast from Vandenberg over the Pacific Ocean for the first two-and-a-half minutes of the flight.

An upper stage engine then took over the mission, steering the rocket on a slight left-hand turn to line up with the mission’s target orbital path and accelerating to nearly 5 miles per second. The first stage extended titanium grid fins and reignited three of its engines for a braking burn, then plunged back into the atmosphere and lit a single Merlin engine to slow down for landing on a drone ship in the Pacific Ocean west of Baja California.

The Falcon 9 aimed to deliver the stack of Starlink internet relay nodes into a low-altitude orbit ranging in altitude between 143 miles (230 kilometers) and 209 miles (337 kilometers), with an inclination of 53.2 degrees to the equator.

Fifteen minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9’s upper stage deployed the mission’s payload of 53 Starlink internet satellites into an on-target orbit. The deployment milestone concluded SpaceX’s 49th mission of the year, a record for any launch company, and SpaceX’s 13th flight of 2022 from the West Coast launch base in California.

The sunset climb to space was visible across the Southwestern United States and Mexico, with the last rays of evening sun lightning up the Falcon 9’s expanding exhaust plume in space. Photos shared on social media from as far away as West Texas showed the rocket’s comet-like exhaust trail illuminated against the night sky on the western horizon.

The first stage booster flown on Thursday night’s mission, designated B1063, completed its eighth trip to space. The booster debuted in November 2020 with the launch of the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich oceanography satellite, launched again a year later with NASA’s DART asteroid deflection experiment, and has now flown six Starlink missions.

The drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” will return the rocket to the Port of Long Beach for refurbishment and reuse on a future SpaceX mission.

After separating from the Falcon 9, the 53 new Starlink satellites were expected to disperse and extend solar panels to begin generating electricity to recharge their batteries. The satellites will go through an automated checkout and activation sequence, then use krypton-fueled ion thrusters to raise their altitude to 335 miles (540 kilometers), where they will enter operational service in the Starlink network.

The 52 new Starlink satellites launched into one of five orbital “shells” in SpaceX’s internet constellation.

SpaceX targeted Shell 4 with Thursday’s mission. The network architecture includes satellites flying a few hundred miles up, orbiting at inclinations of 97.6 degrees, 70 degrees, 53.2 degrees, and 53.0 degrees to the equator. The spacecraft beam broadband internet signals to consumers around the world, connectivity that is now available on all seven continents with testing underway at a research station in Antarctica.

SpaceX completed launches to the first Starlink shell, at 53.0 degrees inclination, last year. The company’s current focus is on deploying satellites into Shell 4 using a series of Falcon 9 rocket launches from Florida and California.

About three-quarters of SpaceX’s 45 missions so far in 2022 have been flights primarily dedicated to delivering Starlink satellites into orbit.

SpaceX initially focused on providing Starlink internet service to fixed users, such as homes and businesses. The company is now developing Starlink services for mobile users, such as consumers in cars, trucks, RVs, ships, and airplanes.

“Earlier this week the team began accepting orders for the new flat high performance Starlink antenna designed for use while in motion on land,” said Jessie Anderson, a SpaceX production engineer and commentator for Thursday night’s launch. “The new panel features a wide field of view and enhanced GPS capabilities, allowing users to employ high speed, low latency internet while on the go.”

With the 53 satellites launched Thursday, SpaceX has put 3,558 Starlink spacecraft into orbit on a series of nearly 70 Falcon 9 rocket missions. That tally includes test satellites and prototypes no longer in service, and some failed and decommissioned spacecraft. More than 3,200 Starlink satellites are currently in orbit, either providing commercial internet service to maneuvering to their operating slots in the constellation, according to a tabulation by Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist and expert tracker of spaceflight activity.

SpaceX’s next launch is set for Tuesday, Nov. 1, from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A Falcon Heavy rocket will launch multiple satellites into orbit for the U.S. Space Force.

The launch next week will mark the first Falcon Heavy launch since June 2019, and the fourth Falcon Heavy flight overall. The Falcon Heavy is the most powerful operational launcher in the world, created by combining three Falcon 9 first stage boosters together to generate more than 5 million pounds of thrust.

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