CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida – SpaceX successfully launched a full stack of Starlink Internet satellites until today (October 18) and concluded the mission with a successful rocket landing at sea.
A double stage Falcon 9 The rocket took off from NASA’s historic Pad 39A here at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 8:25 a.m. EDT (1225 GMT) carrying 60 new Starlink satellites into orbit for the growing SpaceX constellation.
About 9 minutes later, the booster’s first stage returned to Earth, landing on one of SpaceX’s drone ships in the Atlantic Ocean in a smooth landing. The huge ship, called Of Course I Still Love You, is one of two in the company̵
Today there was nothing but blue skies on the Space Coast. Thanks to the clear sky, spectators could follow the rocket from launch to stage separation.
“A great way to start a Sunday,” SpaceX production supervisor Andy Tran said during live commentary on the launch.
Known as the B1051, the booster featured in today’s flight now has it six launches and landings under his belt – the second Falcon 9 to do so. This frequent flyer has ferried four different Starlink payloads into space, in addition to a trio of Earth observation satellites for Canada and an unmanned Dragon spacecraft for NASA Demo mission-1 in 2019. Today’s landing marked the 62nd recovery of a Falcon first stage since SpaceX recovered its first booster in 2015.
Today’s flight marked the 18th launch of 2020 for SpaceX and the 95th Falcon 9 flight to date. SpaceX has had a busy summer and may still have its busiest launch year yet. Currently that record belongs to 2018, when the company launched 21 times.
This achievement is facilitated by SpaceX’s fleet of flight-tested boosters. Currently in its rocket reserves, SpaceX has five veteran and three brand new repeaters reserved for upcoming missions. In 2018, SpaceX debuted a rigged version of his workhorse, the Falcon 9 Block 5. This updated iteration received a number of new features that included a stronger thermal protection system, titanium grid fins, a more durable interstage (the hardware that connects the two stages of the rocket) and more powerful engines.
Now with over 1.7 million pounds of thrust, the updated Falcon 9 has performed reliably for the most part (the rocket has experienced two launch pad outages in the past few months) since it launched its first payload in 2018, a communications satellite for Bangladesh. With that launch, the company hailed the moderately reusable Falcons of the past, ushering in a new era where the same rocket has the ability to fly many times.
Since then, SpaceX has worked to refine its reusable missile technology. Its track record with flight-tested rockets has even earned the company the right to launch payloads for military and national security as well as astronauts on previously flown rockets.
Related: Take a ride (and back) on a SpaceX Falcon 9 in this awesome video
A Starlink megaconstellation
SpaceX has great ambitions to help make humanity a multiplanetary species. To help finance its Mars ambitions, the company has developed a plan to cover the Earth with internet coverage broadcast by a close-knit menagerie of broadband satellites. This megaconstellation would consist of thousands of satellites, flying close to the planet in a region of space called the low earth orbit.
The Internet satellite network would be a way for SpaceX and its CEO, Elon Musk, to generate revenue for Mars exploration and necessary hardware, such as more advanced rockets and other spacecraft. Musk has estimated that the Starlink service could generate up to $ 30 billion annually, although no actual pricing has yet been announced.
The burgeoning internet service is currently going through a private beta test program where company employees put their broadband service to the test. According to reports from SpaceX team members, current data indicates that it can support multiple high-definition streams simultaneously.
With this launch, the company will have sent more than 800 of the quarter-tonne flat-panel satellites into space – a milestone Musk said needed to be reached before SpaceX could begin rolling out its service. There are still regulatory hurdles to overcome and more satellites to launch before the service can be offered globally, but initial testing is promising. As a result, the company plans to open the beta test to the public in the near future.
SpaceX created his Starlink megaconstellation with one goal in mind: to provide more affordable high-speed Internet access around the world, especially for those in rural and remote areas. To that end, the company originally planned a fleet of 1,440 satellites, but has since gained approval for thousands more.
The Federal Communications Commission has granted SpaceX permission to launch up to 12,000 flat-panel broadband satellites, but SpaceX may not stop there. The company has indicated that it will see approval to launch up to 30,000 of its Internet-broadcasting satellites to broadcast high-speed, low-latency Internet signals.
Related: Why SpaceX’s Starlink satellites caught astronomers off guard
SpaceX builds its Starlink satellites at a corporate facility in Redmond, Washington. (It also manufactures its own user terminals and ground stations at this location.) Although still in beta-testing, SpaceX has granted external users access to its Starlink network. In August, the company partnered with Washington State to provide emergency responders with reliable access to the internet.
The state is one of many in the western United States that was ravaged by wildfires this year. In August, rescuers were provided with several user terminals to connect to the broadband network so they could have access to reliable internet service to help a region in need.
The Washington State Emergency Management Department thanked SpaceX for accessing the Starlink network on Twitter earlier this month. The tweet also included a look at users’ terminals, which Musk described as a “UFO on a stick” and bragged about their simplicity, saying anyone could plug one in with ease. According to a CNBC report, Washington officials confirmed that users’ terminals are incredibly easy to use, with installation taking only minutes.
Also in August, SpaceX used Starlink to connect the administration building and homes in the Hoh Native American Reservation in western Washington to high-speed Internet, Tran said.
“The Hohs are a Native American tribe that lives at the mouth of the Hoh River in western Washington state on the Pacific coast,” Tran said. “This remote location previously hampered high-speed broadband access, but after installing the Starlinks the tribe went from virtually no high-speed Internet connectivity overnight.”
“What a difference high-speed Internet can make!” Hoh tribe officials tweeted this month“Our kids can participate in distance learning, residents can access healthcare. We felt like we had paddled upstream with a spoon on this. SpaceX Starlink made it possible overnight.” SpaceX hopes to roll out coverage in the US and Canada by the end of the year, but that depends on how well the beta test is progressing.
Despite early reports that Starlink is doing well, the megaconstellation still remains controversial. This is why represents a challenge to those who study the night sky.
Astronomers rely on dark skies to make critical observations of the universe and its population of stars, planets and galaxies. When Starlink was first launched, it caught many astronomers off guard as it overshadowed their observations.
Starlink satellites are typically launched in groups of 60 and when they lift their orbit, they can appear as a bright train of dots marching across the night sky. This train has been spotted by photographers around the world and has even shown itself in images captured by huge ground-based telescopes, making it difficult for scientists to discern whether a bright streak in the sky is a star or a Starlink satellite.
To help mitigate this problem, SpaceX is looking to reduce the apparent brightness of its satellites by equipping them with a file Sun visor. This special visor helps reduce sunlight reflecting off the brightest parts of the satellites – the antennas.
Related: Avoiding space debris could require a new legal framework
But this is not the only cause for concern. The huge fleet of satellites is also worrying for other missile companies.
SpaceX’s Starlink isn’t the only Internet constellation in the works, Amazon and OneWeb are also planning their own Internet broadcast services. Rocket Lab CEO, Peter Beck, He says the company is starting to feel the effects of congestion in space.
The huge number of objects in space is rapidly skyrocketing as more and more small satellites are launched. In turn, that ever-increasing amount of space traffic makes it difficult to find a clear launch path. This is because outer space is largely unregulated territory. The last major piece of global space legislation – the Outer Space Treaty – was written five decades ago and does not deal with the growing commercial missile industry.
Researchers have warned for decades that this could someday be a substantial problem. Indeed, the International Space Station had to conduct maneuvers to avoid potential collisions with space debris three times so far in 2020. NASA and other space agencies around the world are working on developing missions where deceased debris and satellites can be trapped or even safely moved in another location.
As part of its recovery efforts, SpaceX has deployed its double-fairing catcher boats – GO Ms. Tree and GO Ms. Chief. The dynamic duo were supposed to retrieve the payload fairings once they returned to Earth. Both fairing pieces used on this flight flew three times each.
Tran reported that both salvage ships managed to grab one half of the fairing, even though the net on Go Ms. Tree gave way. SpaceX hopes to re-launch the fairing pieces on a future flight.
Next for SpaceX is the launch of another batch of Starlink satellites. The launch is scheduled to take off from Space Launch Complex 40 no earlier than 21 October. The teams are still investigating a engine failure occurred on October 2, which prevented the launch of an updated GPS satellite from taking off.
This problem too rejected the launch of NASA’s next crew of astronauts. Victor Glover, Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker, and Soichi Noguchi are estimated to take off for the International Space Station before mid-November, giving SpaceX more time to fix the engine problem.
Follow Amy Thompson on Twitter @astrogingersnap. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.