SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket Friday afternoon from California’s central coast with another batch of 53 Starlink Internet satellites, bringing the total number of spacecraft launched on the network to more than 2,500, including testbeds. and the prototypes that have already left the fleet.
The Falcon 9 blasted off at 3:07:50 p.m. PDT (6:07:50 p.m. EDT: 2207:50 GMT) on Friday from Vandenberg Space Force Base, a military spaceport between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
With winds at Vandenberg near the Falcon 9’s launch limit, the 70-meter (229-foot) tall rocket hurtled through sunny skies with nine Merlin engines revving up to 1.7 million pounds of thrust.
Heading south-southeast, the kerosene-burning engines were turned off two and a half minutes after liftoff, then the booster was disconnected from the Falcon 9 second stage. The second stage’s single engine was fired to accelerate the orbiting of all 53 Starlink satellites, while the booster descended for a booster landing on SpaceX’s floating drone “Of Course I Still Love You” in the Pacific Ocean.
The landing marked the end of the fifth flight of this booster, tail number B1063, as the Falcon 9 upper stage followed a coastal-skimming trajectory along southern California and Baja California.
The Falcon 9 second stage fired its engine twice to place the compact Starlink satellites into a nearly circular orbit averaging 310 kilometers (193 miles) above Earth, tilted 53.2 degrees from the equator.
The SpaceX launch team confirmed that the rocket placed the satellites in the expected orbit and then deployed the Starlink spacecraft about 62 minutes after liftoff. Retaining rods released from the Falcon 9 second stage to allow the Starlink satellites, each weighing more than a quarter of a ton, to fly free of the rocket.
The mission was the 19th Falcon 9 launch of the year and SpaceX’s 45th mission dedicated primarily to deploying satellites for the Starlink internet network.
Vandenberg’s launch 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 analysis by Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist who tracks spaceflight activity. That’s about half of SpaceX’s planned first-generation network of 4,408 Starlink satellites.
The 4,400 satellites will be spread across five different orbital “layers” at different altitudes and inclinations. SpaceX, founded and run by Elon Musk, has signaled that it eventually intends to launch as many as 42,000 satellites.
The network carries 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 scheduled to deploy solar arrays and activate krypton-fueled ion thrusters to begin raising their orbits to an operating 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 launch from Florida will put an additional 53 Starlink Internet satellites into orbit.
Liftoff for SpaceX’s 20th mission of the year is scheduled for 4:40:50 pm EDT (20:40:50 GMT) from Pad 40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The Falcon 9, with an all-new first stage, will head northeast from the Florida launch pad to deliver its Starlink payloads at the same altitude and tilt as Friday’s flight.
Back-to-back launches continue SpaceX’s breakneck launch cadence into 2022. With another launch on Saturday, SpaceX will have logged seven Falcon 9 missions in less than a month.
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