SpaceX deploys more Starlink satellites, aims for higher launch cadence

SpaceX sent 53 more Starlink satellites into orbit from Cape Canaveral on Thursday, boosting the commercial internet network while ground staff try to boost the already-blistering frequency of Falcon 9 rocket launches.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launched from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 1:51:40 p.m. EDT (1751:40 GMT) on Thursday to begin the 42nd launch for the Starlink network, which was sponsored by Elon Musk’s space exploration and colonization firm, SpaceX.

Due to strong winds at the Florida spaceport, SpaceX’s launch team delayed Thursday’s liftoff by a few minutes. The weather improved sufficiently for the Falcon 9 to be launched several hours later.

SpaceX completed its 15th Falcon 9 launch and the 149th flight of a Falcon 9 rocket since the workhorse launcher debuted on June 4, 2010, with Thursday’s Starlink 4-14 mission.

The Falcon 9 departed Cape Canaveral Space Station and ascended through clouds before climbing into the upper atmosphere downrange over the Atlantic Ocean, following a typical launch-watcher profile. At maximum power, the Falcon 9’s nine Merlin 1D engines produced approximately 1.7 million pounds of thrust.

The engines shut down, and the booster detached from the Falcon 9’s second stage roughly two-and-a-half minutes after lift-off. The single Merlin engine on the second stage fired to place the 53 Starlink payloads in a preliminary parking orbit. Simultaneously, the booster was prepared for a searing-hot reentry into.

The first stage was a four-stage rocket with titanium hypersonic grid fins that helped it navigate the thin upper atmosphere. The rocket was slowed for landing on the football field-sized drone ship “Just Read the Instructions” by an entry burn using three of the initial stage engines, followed by a final braking burn using one engine.

The landing platform was placed about 300 miles east of Charleston, South Carolina in the Atlantic Ocean. The 15-story-tall booster will be taken back to Cape Canaveral for refurbishment after the rocket landing.

The booster that flew on Thursday’s mission was the company’s 12th space flight, tying a record number of flights for SpaceX’s reusable rocket fleet. The rocket — tail number B1060 — first lifted off June 30, 2020, with a U.S. military GPS navigation satellite for the Department of Defense.

On March 3, the booster with a different batch of Starlink internet satellites was launched. The Falcon 9’s upper stage engine shut down around nine minutes into the flight, just after landing the first stage in the ocean.

Over the Indian Ocean, after coasting across Europe and the Middle East, and then across the Indian Ocean to reach its target orbit, the upper stage reignited its engine for a brief one-second firing to place the 53 Starlink satellites in their correct position for separation.

The Falcon 9’s guidance computer attempted to release the flat-panel satellites about one hour after liftoff from a distance of 189 miles to 197 miles (304 kilometers to 318 kilometers) above Earth, with an inclination of 53.2 degrees toward the equator.

The upper stage deployed the 53 satellites, each weighing a little more than a quarter ton, into the correct orbit. The Starlink spacecraft will use onboard ion thrusters to reach their operational altitude of 335 miles (540 kilometers). They will become commercially available for SpaceX.

To date, SpaceX has launched 2,388 Starlink satellites with Thursday’s mission. Around 2,121 of the remaining satellites are in orbit and appear to be functioning. According to a list maintained by Jonathan McDowell, the rest have either failed or fallen out of orbit, an astrophysicist who closely monitors spaceflight activity.

Planet, which maintains a fleet of about 200 tiny Earth-imaging satellites, has almost five times as many functioning spacecraft in the world’s second-largest constellation — the internet constellation owned by Starlink’s rival OneWeb. In third place is Planet, which runs a flock of roughly 200 small Earth-imaging satellites.

SpaceX will launch approximately 4,400 Starlink satellites into five “shells” more than 300 miles above the planet, according to statements by the company. The shells are at varied inclinations, and SpaceX carried out the first of the five Starlink groups in May.

Ultimately, SpaceX intends to launch as many as 42,000 internet satellites. The final figure hinges on market demand for the Starlink service, which offers high-speed, low-latency connectivity.

Customers in remote, hard-to-reach areas, such as rural villages, isolated homes, islands, and ships, should use Starlink. Customers can join the service by paying a reservation fee of $599 for an antenna and modem and $110 per month for consumer-grade Starlink service.

The US Air Force has teamed up with Elon Musk’s SpaceX to demonstrate Starlink connectivity to planes. The Wall Street Journal reports that Delta Air Lines has conducted “exploratory” tests of the Starlink system for potential future use on passenger aircraft.

The air carrier JSX announced Thursday night that it will outfit 100 of its private jets with SpaceX’s internet service for in-flight WiFi. The firm stated that the first Starlink-equipped JSX aircraft should be airborne by the end of this year.

During air travel, high-speed, low-latency internet is essential in today’s environment, and Starlink can provide an internet experience comparable to or better than what consumers have at home. We’ll be able to offer an internet experience like or better than what passengers get at home with Starlink. By being the first airline to use Starlink 

On Thursday, a Falcon 9 rocket will launch another 50 Starlink satellites from Florida. Another Falcon 9 and SpaceX’s Dragon Freedom spacecraft are several miles away on a different launchpad, with another Falcon 9 and SpaceX’s Starlink mission following soon after.

The launch of the Starlink 4-14 mission will be followed by the launch of another Falcon 9 rocket, presently on pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, north of pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

On April 19, SpaceX will launch its Dragon capsule from pad 39A for NASA’s Crew-4 mission to the International Space Station. The mission has been delayed due to weather setbacks, pushing back the return of another SpaceX Dragon crew capsule from the station by three days.

Following the fourth Falcon 9 launch of Starlink, which took place on Thursday, the company’s next Starlink mission is planned for Saturday, April 30, from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. That rocket will also make use of SpaceX’s drone ship. The drone ship team will attempt an eight-day turnaround to return one Falcon 9 first.

Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX, said his corporation is working on refurbishment and performance improvements to improve the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch frequency.

Finally, Musk indicated that the Falcon Heavy is “nearing completion” and will begin its test missions in 2019. In an interview with CNBC on Tuesday, he stated: “The SpaceX Falcon team is making amazing progress!” On Monday, he tweeted: “SpaceX Falcon team making great strides! Aiming for a 5-day launch cadence with.

Two more Falcon 9 rockets are scheduled to launch on Starlink missions on May 8, with three additional Falcon 9 launches planned for later in May from pads in Florida and California.

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