First phase of SpaceX’s Starlink network nears completion with Falcon 9 launch

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A Falcon 9 rocket lifts off Wednesday afternoon from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

The launch of 60 more Starlink satellites Wednesday from Cape Canaveral could give SpaceX enough spacecraft to complete the first layer of its privately-funded global internet network, but the company shows no signs of slowing its launch cadence this summer.

With Wednesday’s launch, SpaceX has delivered 1,737 Starlink internet satellites to orbit. But that number includes prototypes and failed spacecraft no longer part of the operational constellation.

A tabulation by Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and a widely-respected tracker of spaceflight activity, shows SpaceX had 1,574 working Starlink satellites in orbit before the new group of 60 launched Wednesday.

McDowell’s table showed the Starlink network had 951 operational spacecraft as of Wednesday, plus hundreds more maneuvering to their final locations in the constellation.

The Starlink network is the largest satellite fleet in history, and SpaceX is adding more spacecraft to expand the constellation to provide global internet service.

SpaceX, founded and led by billionaire Elon Musk, is currently providing interim internet services through the Starlink satellites to consumers who have signed up for a beta testing program in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, New Zealand, France, Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

The completion of the first Starlink “shell” will enable the network to provide high-speed, low-latency internet services to lower latitudes, such as the southern United States. The partial deployment of satellites into the first orbital shell initially provided service over northern regions of the United States, Canada, and Europe, as well as higher-latitude regions in the southern hemisphere.

SpaceX has regulatory approval from the Federal Communications Commission to eventually launch and operate up to 12,000 internet relay satellites. The early phases of SpaceX’s Starlink network involves the launch of 4,408 satellites into five orbital shells, or layers, in low Earth orbit.

The FCC last month approved SpaceX’s request to fly the rest of the company’s near-term 4,408-satellite constellation at lower altitudes than originally planned.

The updated Starlink network architecture has 1,584 satellites at 341 miles (550 kilometers) altitude and an inclination of 53 degrees. With the 60 satellites launched Wednesday, SpaceX could have 1,634 Starlink craft operating or soon to operate in that shell, assuming none of the relay stations fail.

SpaceX’s other Starlink layers include 1,584 satellites at 335 miles (540 kilometers) and an inclination of 53.2 degrees, 720 satellites at 354 miles (570 kilometers) and an inclination of 70 degrees, and 520 satellites spread into two shells at 348 miles (560 kilometers) and an inclination of 97.6 degrees.

The polar orbiting satellites, which will begin launching from Vandenberg Space Force Base later this year, will give the Starlink network complete global coverage.

SpaceX has regulatory authorization to launch 7,518 additional Starlink satellites beyond the 4,408 spacecraft covered in the recent FCC approval.

Starlink competitors, such as Viasat and representatives from Amazon’s planned Kuiper network, objected to SpaceX’s request to fly its satellites at lower altitudes. But the FCC ruled SpaceX could go ahead with its Starlink plans.

Viasat filed a motion last week with the FCC to stay its authorization for SpaceX to launch Starlink satellites to the lower-altitude orbit until a federal court rules on whether Starlink network needs an environmental review. The FCC has not ruled on Viasat’s motion, which would halt Starlink launches into the other orbital shells.

SpaceX’s newest 60 Starlink satellites, tipping the scales at about 34,400 pounds (15.6 metric tons), lifted off at 2:59 p.m. EDT (1859 GMT) Wednesday from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

A 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 rocket rumbled off the launch pad with 1.7 million pounds of thrust from nine Merlin 1D main engines. The rocket’s guidance computer steered the launch vehicle toward the northeast from Cape Canaveral into a mostly sunny sky, beginning SpaceX’s 16th Falcon 9 launch of the year.

After racing through the speed of sound, the Falcon 9 shut down its nine main engines about two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff. Moments later, the cylindrical booster jettisoned to begin a controlled descent back to a SpaceX drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

The first stage landed on the recovery vessel about eight-and-a-half minutes into the mission.

Wednesday’s mission used a booster from SpaceX’s inventory making its second launch. The booster, designated B1063, previously launched the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich oceanography satellite in November from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

SpaceX landed the booster back at Vandenberg after the launch last November.

The rocket stage was originally assigned to launch NASA’s DART asteroid mission this summer, but that flight has been pushed back to November due to delays in readying the spacecraft for launch. SpaceX shipped the rocket from the West Coast to Florida earlier this year to join the company’s fleet of Falcon 9 boosters at Cape Canaveral.

The payload shroud on Wednesday’s launch was also recycled from previous missions. One half of the clamshell-like fairing, which protected the 60 Starlink satellites during the first few minutes of flight through the atmosphere, previously flew on four Starlink missions. It was the first time part of a payload shroud has launched five times.

The other half of the fairing flew on two missions before Wednesday’s launch. SpaceX’s recovery team will again try to retrieve the fairing halves from the Atlantic Ocean after they parachute into the sea.

While rocket components descended toward The Atlantic, the Falcon 9 rocket’s upper stage completed two engine burns to place the 60 Starlink satellites into an orbit about 180 miles, or 290 kilometers, above Earth.

The satellites separated from the rocket about 64 minutes after liftoff to complete the mission — the 103rd consecutive successful launch for SpaceX’s Falcon rocket family, and the 100th successful flight in a row by a Falcon 9 rocket.

The 60 Starlink satellites, each weighing about 573 pounds (260 kilograms), will unfold solar panels and switch on krypton-fed ion thrusters to drive themselves into the operational Starlink network at an altitude of 341 miles over the next few months.

Thirteen of SpaceX’s 16 satellite deployment missions this year have been primarily dedicated to launching Starlink spacecraft, but the company’s focus will shift to missions for external customers in June, when at least four Falcon 9 launches are scheduled from Florida’s Space Coast.

The next SpaceX mission is scheduled for June 3 — next Thursday — when a brand new Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule are set to blast off from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The unpiloted mission will haul several tons of cargo to the International Space Station, including two solar array wings to augment the power output of the research lab’s electrical system.

Later in the month, a Falcon 9 rocket will launch the SXM 8 radio broadcasting satellite for SiriusXM. A Falcon 9 rocket is also scheduled to blast off from Cape Canaveral on June 17 with the U.S. Space Force’s next GPS navigation satellite.

SpaceX plans to close out the month of June with the Transporter 2 mission, the company’s second Falcon 9 rideshare launch carrying numerous small satellites into orbit for U.S. and international customers.

Launch dates for potential Starlink missions in June have not been announced.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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