SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket from California’s Central Coast Friday afternoon with another batch of 53 Starlink Internet satellites, bringing the total number of spacecraft launched on the network above 2,500, including test beds and prototypes that had already cycled from the fleet.
The Falcon 9 lifted off Friday at 3:07:50 a.m. PDT (6:07:50 a.m. EDT: 2207:50 GMT) from Vandenberg Space Force Base, a military spaceport between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
With winds at Vandenberg near the Falcon 9 launch limit, the 70-foot rocket floated through a sunny sky with nine Merlin engines throttling up to 1.7 million pounds of thrust.
Heading south-southeast, the kerosene-burning engines stopped two and a half minutes after launch, at which point the booster disconnected from the Falcon 9 second stage. The second stage’s single motor fires to accelerate the 53 Starlink satellites in orbit, while the booster descends to a propulsive landing on SpaceX’s floating drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” in the Pacific Ocean.
The landing marked the end of the fifth flight for this booster – tail number B1063 – as the Falcon 9’s upper stage followed a coast-hugging trajectory past Southern California and Baja California.
The Falcon 9’s second stage fired its engine twice to place the flat-packed Starlink satellites in a near-circular orbit averaging about 310 kilometers above Earth, with an inclination of 53.2 degrees from the equator.
The SpaceX launch team confirmed that the rocket had placed the satellites in the expected orbit and then deployed the Starlink spacecraft about 62 minutes after launch. Retention bars released from the Falcon 9’s second stage to allow the Starlink satellites, over a quarter-ton each, to fly free from the rocket.
The mission was the 19th Falcon 9 launch of the year and the 45th SpaceX mission primarily devoted to deploying satellites to the Starlink Internet network.
The launch from Vandenberg brought the total number of Starlink satellites launched to more than 2,547 spacecraft. That number includes prototypes, failed satellites, and decommissioned spacecraft that are no longer in the constellation.
More than 2,200 Starlink satellites are currently in orbit and operating, according to an analysis by Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist who tracks spaceflight activities. That’s about half of SpaceX’s planned first-generation network of 4,408 Starlink satellites.
The 4,400 satellites will be spread over five different orbital “shells” at different heights and inclinations. SpaceX, founded and led by Elon Musk, has indicated that it eventually plans to launch as many as 42,000 satellites.
The network radiates high-speed, low-latency Internet signals around the world, reaching consumers, underserved communities and other potential users such as the US military. SpaceX says the Starlink network is now available to consumers in 32 countries.
After separation from the Falcon 9 rocket, the Starlink satellites were programmed to deploy solar panels and activate krypton-powered ion thrusters to raise their orbits to an operational altitude of 335 miles (540 kilometers).
The mission from California on Friday would be followed by another Falcon 9 launch on Saturday from Cape Canaveral. The Florida launch will put an additional 53 Starlink internet satellites into orbit.
The launch of SpaceX’s 20th mission of the year is scheduled for 4:40:50 p.m. EDT (2040:50 GMT) from pad 40 on the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The Falcon 9, with a brand new first stage, will sail northeast from the Florida launch site to deliver its Starlink payloads at the same height and slope as Friday’s flight.
The back-to-back launches continue SpaceX’s blistering launch cadence into 2022. With a new launch on Saturday, SpaceX will have logged seven Falcon 9 missions in less than a month.
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