SpaceX adds more satellites to Starlink internet fleet

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A Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 3:13 a.m. EST (0813 GMT) Thursday. Credit: SpaceX

Continuing a high-tempo launch cadence, SpaceX delivered another batch of 60 Starlink internet satellites to orbit early Thursday after a seemingly flawless liftoff from Cape Canaveral aboard a Falcon 9 rocket.

Then Falcon 9 rocket’s nine Merlin 1D main engines roared to life and the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) launcher climbed away from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 3:13:29 a.m. EST (0813:29 GMT) Thursday, beginning SpaceX’s seventh mission of the year from Florida’s Space Coast.

Throttling up to generate 1.7 million pounds of thrust, the nine main engines guided the Falcon 9 rocket on a course northeast from the Florida coast. The rocket shed its first stage booster and payload shroud in the first few minutes of the flight, and then Falcon 9’s upper stage flew up the East Coast before reaching a preliminary parking orbit.

The 15-story first stage descended to a spot-on landing on the football field-size deck of SpaceX’s drone ship “Just Read the Instructions” parked in the Atlantic Ocean a few hundred miles east of Charleston, South Carolina. The successful landing ended the reusable booster’s sixth trip to space and back since debuting on SpaceX’s first launch of astronauts last year.

Two recovery ships were also stationed in the Atlantic to retrieve both halves of the Falcon 9’s payload fairing.

After flying halfway around the world, the Falcon 9’s second stage reignited its engine to inject the 60 Starlink satellites into the proper orbit for deployment. The rocket spun up to release the satellites all at once at 4:18 a.m. EST (0918 GMT) as it sailed at an altitude of 180 miles (291 kilometers) just south of New Zealand.

SpaceX officials confirmed the Falcon 9 rocket placed the Starlink satellites into an on-target orbit, concluding the company’s 110th Falcon 9 launch since 2010, and the 94th straight successful flight by SpaceX’s Falcon rocket family.

A Falcon 9 rocket streaks downrange from Cape Canaveral early Thursday in this long exposure photo. Credit: SpaceX

With Thursday’s launch, SpaceX has dedicated 21 of those Falcon 9 missions to carrying satellites for the company’s Starlink internet network. The 60 new Starlinks launched Thursday bring the total number of Starlink satellites launched to date to 1,265 spacecraft, including prototype platforms not designed for operational service.

More than 1,100 of the Starlink satellites appear to be functioning, discounting test spacecraft and failed satellites, according to a catalog maintained by Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer and widely-respected tracker of space activity.

The Starlink network could eventually number more than 10,000 satellites, but the first tranche of Starlinks will have 1,584 satellites orbiting 341 miles (550 kilometers) above Earth on paths tilted 53 degrees to the equator. SpaceX has approval from the Federal Communications Commission for around 12,000 Starlink satellites at a range of altitudes and inclinations, all within a few hundred miles of the planet. The low altitude enables the satellites to deliver high-speed, low-latency connectivity to customers, and helps ensure the spacecraft naturally re-enter the atmosphere faster than if they flew farther from Earth.

Starlink is already providing interim beta service across high latitude regions, such as the northern United States, Canada, and England. More Starlink launches this year will enable an expanded coverage area.

SpaceX announced earlier his week that the Starlink beta service will soon begin reaching customers in Germany, New Zealand, and in other regions of the United Kingdom, including Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and northern England. Those areas could receive beta service in the “coming weeks,” SpaceX said.

SpaceX is accepting pre-orders from would-be Starlink consumers, who can pay $99 to reserve their place in line to get Starlink service when it becomes available in their area. For people in the southern United States and other lower-latitude regions, that should come by late 2021, SpaceX says.

Once confirmed, customers will pay $499 for a Starlink antenna and modem, plus $50 in shipping and handling, SpaceX says. A subscription will run $99 per month.

The Starlink satellites are built by SpaceX in Redmond, Washington, and each spacecraft weighs about a quarter-ton at liftoff. They are fitted with power-generating solar array wings, krypton ion thrusters for propulsion, and visors to dim their brightness to people on the ground, a mitigation added to Starlink satellites last year after astronomers raised concerns the spacecraft would ruin some telescopic observations.

Like earlier Starlink satellites, the new spacecraft deployed Thursday will use their propulsion systems to raise their altitude to the 341-mile-high Starlink operating orbit to begin beaming broadband Ku-band signals to consumers.

SpaceX is building out production of ground terminals, routers, and other equipment for shipment to Starlink customers. A job listing posted online last week suggested SpaceX plans a manufacturing center in Austin, Texas, to produce consumer-facing Starlink hardware.

The company filed a request with the FCC on Friday for approval to deploy end-user stations it calls “Earth Stations in Motion,” or ESIMs. The mobile terminals would be mounted on land vehicles, ships, and airplanes, SpaceX said in the filing.

The mobile stations are “electrically identical” to the $499 terminals already authorized by the FCC for fixed consumers. The federal regulator previously issued a license for SpaceX to field up to a million end-user Earth stations designed for homes, businesses, schools, hospitals, and other types of customers.

The Starlink terminals designed for mobility have “mountings that allow them to be installed on vehicles, vessels, and aircraft,” SpaceX wrote in the filing with the FCC. The terminals will communicate with Starlink satellites visible above an elevation of 25 degrees in the sky.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, tweeted Monday that the mobile terminals won’t be used in smaller vehicles, such as Tesla cars, because “our terminal is much too big.”

“This is for aircraft, ships, large trucks & RVs,” Musk tweeted.

SpaceX has at least two more Starlink missions scheduled for launch before the end of March, and possibly more.

The next Falcon 9 rocket launch is scheduled for no earlier than 5:44 a.m. EDT (0944 GMT) Sunday from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, a few miles north of pad 40, the departure point for the Falcon 9 launch Thursday morning. The Falcon 9 mission Sunday will also deploy a batch of Starlink satellites in orbit.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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