Watch a replay of our live coverage of the countdown and launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on the Starlink 5-12 mission at 11:35 a.m. EDT (1535 UTC) on June 23 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida. Follow us on Twitter.
Launch Pad Live
A Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral Friday with another batch of Starlink internet satellites, wrapping up SpaceX’s action-packed first half of the year with the company’s 44th mission of 2023.
SpaceX’s 44th launch of the year took off from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 11:35 a.m. EDT (1535 UTC) Friday, the company’s second mission in two days. SpaceX pushed back the launch time from earlier Friday morning due to stormy weather.
The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 rocket headed southeast from Florida’s Space Coast to haul the 56 Starlink satellites into orbit on SpaceX’s last launch of the first half of 2023. SpaceX launched a batch of 47 Starlink internet payloads early Thursday from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
The 56 satellites on Friday’s mission, named Starlink 5-12, brought the total number of Starlink spacecraft SpaceX has launched to 4,698. The Starlink network provides high-speed, low-latency connectivity to customers around the world. SpaceX says each Starlink launch adds more than a terabit per second of capacity to the constellation.
SpaceX currently has more than 4,200 functioning Starlink satellites in space, with nearly 3,700 operational spacecraft and more than 500 moving into their operational orbits, according to a tabulation by Jonathan McDowell, an expert tracker of spaceflight activity and an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
The rest of the Starlink satellites were prototypes or failed platforms that have been retired from service and guided back into the atmosphere to burn up on re-entry.
On Friday’s launch, the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage booster re-entered the atmosphere for a propulsive landing on SpaceX’s drone ship “Just Read the Instructions” about 400 miles (640 kilometers) downrange approximately eight-and-a-half minutes after liftoff. The reusable booster, designated B1069 in SpaceX’s inventory, made its eighth trip to space.
Friday’s mission continued deployment of SpaceX’s older-generation Starlink V1.5 satellites. SpaceX has two more launches of the older Starlink satellite design scheduled for early July before the company fully transitions to launching new-generation Starlink V2 Mini platforms, which are larger and offer four times the broadband capacity of the older-design satellites.
The new Starlink V2 Minis carry upgraded phase array antennas and a more efficient, higher-thrust argon-fueled electric propulsion system. They also have two solar arrays, compared to a single extendable solar panel on each Starlink V1.5 spacecraft.
The Starlink V1.5 satellites on Friday’s Starlink 5-12 mission were similar to the Starlink spacecraft SpaceX has launched over the last few years, but they headedinto an orbital plane that is, at least in regulatory terms, part of SpaceX’s second-generation, or Gen2, network.
SpaceX started launching satellites into the Gen2 network in December, beginning the population of new orbital planes with older-design satellites until the larger Starlink spacecraft design is ready to take over entirely.
The Starlink V2 Mini satellites that SpaceX started launching in February represent an intermediate step between the smaller Starlink V1.5 spacecraft and the even larger full-size Starlink V2s, which SpaceX plans to deploy in orbit using the company’s giant new Starship rocket. After two more launches of Starlink V1.5 satellites in early July, SpaceX is expected to fully transition over to launching Starlink V2 Mini satellites until the Starship is ready to carry Starlink payloads into orbit.
The Federal Communications granted SpaceX approval Dec. 1 to launch up to 7,500 of its planned 29,988-spacecraft Starlink Gen2 constellation, which will spread out into slightly different orbits than the original Starlink fleet.
Specifically, the FCC granted SpaceX authority to launch the initial block of 7,500 Starlink Gen2 satellites into orbits at 525, 530, and 535 kilometers, with inclinations of 53, 43, and 33 degrees, respectively, using Ku-band and Ka-band frequencies. The Starlink 5-12 mission Friday targeted the 43-degree inclination orbit in the Starlink Gen2 constellation.
The FCC previously authorized SpaceX to launch and operate roughly 4,400 first-generation Ka-band and Ku-band Starlink spacecraft that SpaceX started launching in 2019. The first-generation Starlink 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 Gen2 satellites will improve Starlink coverage over lower latitude regions, and help alleviate pressure on the network from growing consumer uptake. SpaceX says the network has more than 1 million active subscribers, mostly households in areas where conventional fiber connectivity is unavailable, unreliable, or expensive. Users also include cruise ship companies, airlines, and military forces.
Working out of SpaceX’s launch and landing control center just south of Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, engineers supervised the countdown leading up to liftoff of the Starlink 5-12 mission Friday. The Falcon 9 rocket was filled with a million pounds of kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants in the final 35 minutes before liftoff.
After teams verified technical and weather parameters were all “green” for launch, the nine Merlin 1D main engines on the first stage booster flashed to life with the help of an ignition fluid called triethylaluminum/triethylborane, or TEA-TEB. Once the engines ramped up to full throttle, hydraulic clamps opened to release the Falcon 9 for its climb into space.
The nine main engines produced 1.7 million pounds of thrust for more than two-and-a-half minutes, propelling the Falcon 9 and the 56 Starlink satellites into the upper atmosphere. Then the booster stage shut down and separated from the Falcon 9’s upper stage to begin a controlled descent toward SpaceX’s drone ship “Just Read the Instructions” parked in the Atlantic Ocean northeast of the Bahamas.
The booster, designated B1069, extended titanium hypersonic grid fins and used cold gas nitrogen thrusters to control its orientation, then reignited three of its nine main engines for a nearly 30-second braking maneuver during re-entry. A final landing burn with just the center engine slowed the rocket for touchdown on the drone ship about eight-and-a-half minutes into the mission.
A SpaceX recovery ship was also in position in the Atlantic to recover the Falcon 9 rocket’s payload fairing after the nose cone’s two clamshell halves parachute into the sea. The payload fairing jettisoned from the rocket nearly three minutes into the flight, shortly after ignition of the Falcon 9’s upper stage engine.
SpaceX said one of the fairing halves on Friday’s mission flew for the 10th time, a record for a Falcon 9 payload shroud.
The Falcon 9 rocket fired its upper stage engine two times to inject the 56 Starlink spacecraft into an orbit ranging between 185 and 211 miles (298-by-340 kilometerS)in altitude, with an inclination of 43 degrees to the equator. Deployment of the 56 Starlink satellites was confirmed about 65 minutes after liftoff.
SpaceX’s launch campaign for the second half of 2023 will begin July 1 with a Falcon 9 flight from Cape Canaveral to boost the European Space Agency’s Euclid space telescope toward its operating position nearly a million miles from Earth. ESA’s Euclid mission, originally slated to fly on a Russian rocket, will observe billions of galaxies to help astronomers study the influence of mysterious dark energy on the expansion of the universe.
Another Falcon 9 launch from California with the next batch of Starlink satellites is scheduled July 2.
SpaceX started the year with the goal of launching 100 missions in 2023. The pace so far is well ahead of the 2022 launch cadence, but just shy of the launch rate SpaceX needs to reach 100 flights by the end of the year. About half of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 missions so far in 2023 have been dedicated flights for the company’s own Starlink internet network.
The main limitation on SpaceX’s launch cadence has been launch pad readiness. SpaceX has cut turnaround times at pad 40 in Florida to as short as four to five days, and spans between launches at the company’s launch site in California to less than 10 days.
SpaceX’s other operational launch site, pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, has seen limited use this year due to its role as SpaceX’s only launch pad capable of supporting astronaut missions and flights of the Falcon Heavy rocket. Launch Complex 39A has hosted seven SpaceX flights so far this year, and will be used again next month for the next launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket carrying a commercial broadband satellite for EchoStar’s Hughes Network Systems.
ROCKET: Falcon 9 (B1069.8)
PAYLOAD: 56 Starlink satellites (Starlink 5-12)
LAUNCH SITE: SLC-40, Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida
LAUNCH DATE: June 23, 2023
LAUNCH TIME: 11:35:10 a.m. EDT (1535:10 UTC)
WEATHER FORECAST: 40% chance of acceptable weather
BOOSTER RECOVERY: “Just Read the Instructions” drone ship northeast of the Bahamas
LAUNCH AZIMUTH: Southeast
TARGET ORBIT: 185 miles by 211 miles (298 kilometers by 340 kilometers), 43.0 degrees inclination
- T+00:00: Liftoff
- T+01:12: Maximum aerodynamic pressure (Max-Q)
- T+02:27: First stage main engine cutoff (MECO)
- T+02:30: Stage separation
- T+02:36: Second stage engine ignition (SES 1)
- T+02:48: Fairing jettison
- T+06:14: First stage entry burn ignition (three engines)
- T+06:35: First stage entry burn cutoff
- T+08:09: First stage landing burn ignition (one engine)
- T+08:29: First stage landing
- T+08:39: Second stage engine cutoff (SECO 1)
- T+54:04: Second stage engine ignition (SES 2)
- T+54:07: Second stage engine cutoff (SECO 2)
- T+1:05:28: Starlink satellite separation
- 235th launch of a Falcon 9 rocket since 2010
- 246th launch of Falcon rocket family since 2006
- 8th launch of Falcon 9 booster B1069
- 175th flight of a reused Falcon booster
- 197th SpaceX launch from Florida’s Space Coast
- 130th Falcon 9 launch from pad 40
- 185th launch overall from pad 40
- 90th Falcon 9 launch primarily dedicated to Starlink network
- 41st Falcon 9 launch of 2023
- 44th launch by SpaceX in 2023
- 32nd orbital launch attempt based out of Cape Canaveral in 2023
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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.