Starlink satellites, Italian space tug launched by SpaceX rocket

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Vandenberg Space Force Base on Tuesday, Jan. 31. Credit: Brian Sandoval / Spaceflight Now

SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket Tuesday from California’s Central Coast with 49 Starlink internet satellites and a rideshare space tug for the Italian company D-Orbit, itself carrying tech demo experiments and cremated human remains for customers in the United States, Germany, New Zealand, and Switzerland.

The mission was SpaceX’s seventh launch of the year, and the second of 2023 from Vandenberg Space Force Base, a military spaceport about 140 miles (225 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles.

Officials delayed the launch two days to allow more time to complete preflight preparations, but the rocket was ready and weather was favorable for liftoff at 8:15 a.m. PST (11:15 a.m. EST; 1615 GMT) Tuesday from Space Launch Complex 4-East, SpaceX’s West Coast launch site.

The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 rocket vaulted off the launch pad with 1.7 million pounds of thrust from its nine kerosene-fueled Merlin engines. The rocket steered south-southeast on a path parallel to the Pacific coastline, and fired its first stage engines for about two-and-a-half minutes before the booster separated to begin a descent toward SpaceX’s drone ship “Just Read the Instructions” west of Baja California.

After arcing to the edge of space, the booster re-entered the atmosphere and accomplished a bullseye propulsive landing about eight-and-a-half minutes after liftoff. It was the seventh flight to space for the booster, designated B1071 in SpaceX’s inventory of reusable rockets.

The Falcon 9’s upper stage fired its single engine two times to inject the 49 Starlink internet satellites and the rideshare payload from D-Orbit into an orbit around 207 miles (333 kilometers) above Earth, at an inclination of 70 degrees to the equator.

Deployment of the D-Orbit ION satellite carrier vehicle from the Falcon 9’s upper state occurred 57 minutes after liftoff, followed by separation of the 49 Starlink satellites about 20 minutes later.

The Starlink satellites will use their on-board plasma propulsion systems to raise their altitude into SpaceX’s operational network.

SpaceX’s first-generation Starlink fleet is spread out into five groups, or orbital shells, between 335 miles and 354 miles in altitude. The first-generation Starlink shells are inclined at different angles to the equator, with some satellites orbiting between 53 degrees north and south latitude, and others in orbits flying from pole-to-pole.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket deployed 49 Starlink internet satellites and an orbital transfer vehicle from the Italian company D-Orbit. Credit: SpaceX

The Starlink satellites on this launch, named Starlink 2-6, flew into an orbit inclined 70 degrees to the equator. It’s the third launch into Group 2, following missions in September 2021 and on Jan. 19.

SpaceX began launching satellites into its second-generation Starlink constellation, called Gen2, last month. The Starlink 2-6 mission continued filling out the first-generation Starlink fleet.

The Federal Communications Commission granted SpaceX approval Dec. 1 to launch up to 7,500 of its planned 29,988-spacecraft Starlink Gen2 constellation. The regulatory agency deferred a decision on the remaining satellites SpaceX proposed for Gen2.

The FCC previously authorized SpaceX to launch and operate roughly 4,400 first-generation Ka-band and Ku-band Starlink spacecraft that SpaceX has been launching since 2019.

The Gen2 satellites could improve Starlink coverage over lower latitude regions, and help alleviate pressure on the network from growing consumer uptake. Starlink service is now available in more than 40 countries on all seven continents, with SpaceX most recently adding Peru and Nigeria to the list.

D-Orbit’s ION SCV009 spacecraft hosts multiple payloads, including the demonstration of a new satellite release ring that could be incorporated on future launch vehicles and space tugs. The 8-inch payload release ring was developed by Connecticut-based Ensign-Bickford Aerospace & Defense Company.

The payload release system will be connected to a satellite simulator, according to D-Orbit. The company’s ION SCV009 spacecraft will maneuver into a lower orbit after separation from the Falcon 9, allowing the tech demo experiment to occur closer to Earth’s atmosphere. The satellite simulator to be released from the D-Orbit spacecraft is expected to burn up in the atmosphere within four to eight weeks, the company said, reducing the risk of creating new space junk.

D-Orbit’s ninth ION satellite carrier, dubbed “Eclectic Elena,” launched on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket Tuesday from California. Credit: D-Orbit

The D-Orbit space tug, nicknamed “Eclectic Elena,” also hosts an on-board computer developed by a team of researchers and students at the Swiss technology institute EPFL. Engineers will test the performance of the computer in the environment of space before the design is used on future small satellite missions, including EPFL’s CHESS mission, a pair of CubeSats that will collect measurements on the upper atmosphere.

Another payload on the D-Orbit transfer vehicle is a drag sail developed by a German company named HPS. The thin membrane of the aerobrake will deploy to a dimension of 54 square feet (5 square meters) to accelerate the re-entry of the spacecraft at the end of its mission.

D-Orbit’s rideshare mission also carries cremated human remains on a memorial spaceflight opportunity arranged by a New Zealand company named StardustMe.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.