SpaceX launches 2,000th Starlink satellite – Spaceflight Now

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SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket enters orbit with 49 other Starlink internet satellites. Credit: Michael Cain / Spaceflight Now / Coldlife Photography

A set of 49 Starlink satellites that flew a Falcon 9 rocket into orbit Tuesday night from Florida included the 2,000th spacecraft to launch onto SpaceX’s high-speed internet network.

The successful orbital deployment of SpaceX’s 49 newest satellites brought the total number of Starlink spacecraft built and launched to 2,042, including prototypes and testbeds no longer in service.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted on Saturday that the company has 1,469 active Starlink satellites, plus 272 spacecraft still maneuvering to their operational orbits. He added that inter-satellite laser links, used to transmit internet traffic from one spacecraft to another without going through a ground station, will soon activate.

More than 200 Starlink satellites have crashed or been taken out of service. Some of these Starlink spacecraft were earlier models, either used as test versions or obsolete.

The last Starlink mission was the 35th dedicated Falcon 9 launch to expand the network.

The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) launch vehicle lifted off from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 9:02:40 p.m. EST Tuesday (02:02:40 GMT Wednesday) and soared into the sky lit by the moon, heading southeast over the Atlantic Ocean.

A Falcon 9 rocket transited the Moon on Tuesday evening. Credit: SpaceX

The mission was originally scheduled to take off on Monday evening, but SpaceX delayed the flight for a day to wait for improved weather conditions at the Falcon 9 booster’s offshore recovery site near the Bahamas.

SpaceX bypassed another launch opportunity at 7:04 p.m. EST on Tuesday without explanation, and instead targeted a backup launch slot at 9:02 p.m.

Nine Merlin engines are cranked up to full throttle, generating 1.7 million pounds of thrust, to propel the Falcon 9 from the launch pad.

A high-powered night-vision tracking camera showed the rocket’s first stage shutting down its engines two and a half minutes into the mission. The booster stage jettisoned moments later and the second stage ignited its Merlin engine with a burst of exhaust to continue the orbit climb.

The first stage followed a parabolic trajectory, briefly hovering above the atmosphere beyond the confines of space before plunging back to Earth for a propulsive landing on SpaceX’s drone “A Shortfall of Gravitas” at around 400 miles (650 kilometers) southeast of Cape Canaveral near the Bahamas.

The target landing completed the 10th flight of the booster used during Tuesday night’s mission. The booster – tail number B1060 – made its debut on June 30, 2020, with the launch of a US military GPS navigation satellite.

The booster sent 487 satellites to space in its 10 missions, and the successful landing Tuesday night gives the rocket a chance for an 11th flight once the drone returns to Port Canaveral. SpaceX has now flown four of its reusable boosters at least 10 times, with one rocket having already logged 11 missions.

Falcon 9’s upper stage orbited its 49 Starlink satellite payloads nearly nine minutes after liftoff Tuesday night.

The rocket flew out of range of SpaceX ground stations before releasing the satellites, so ground crews were unable to confirm the deployment event until the Falcon 9 did the circumnavigated the globe and returned over a tracking site in Alaska around 10:30 p.m. EST (03:30 GMT). ).

Telemetry relayed by the Kodiak Island site indicated that the 49 Starlink satellites had separated in orbit near the planned altitude and inclination. The target orbit varied in altitude between 130 miles and 210 miles (210 by 339 kilometers), with an inclination of 53.2 degrees relative to the equator.

Confirmation of satellite separation concluded Falcon 9’s third launch of the year, following the Jan. 6 and Jan. 13 missions from Florida’s space coast with an earlier batch of Starlink satellite and the rideshare flight of the small Transporter 3 satellite.

Tuesday night’s mission, officially named Starlink 4-6, paves the way for two more SpaceX launches from Florida on Jan. 27 and 29, carrying an Italian radar remote sensing satellite and another group of Starlink spacecraft, respectively.

SpaceX has a long-term plan to launch up to 42,000 Starlink satellites, according to a filing with the International Telecommunications Union. The company’s initial goal is to deploy thousands of satellites in five orbital “shells”.

The 53.2-degree inclination shell, the target for Tuesday night’s launch, is one of five orbital shells at varying inclination angles that SpaceX plans to populate with approximately 4,400 satellites to provide high-speed connectivity to low latency worldwide. The first shell, at 53.0 degrees, was filled with its full complement of satellites last May.

Earlier this month, SpaceX said the Starlink network is now active in 25 countries and regions, serving more than 145,000 users worldwide. SpaceX builds its Starlink satellites on an assembly line in Redmond, Washington, and the company develops and iterates its own user terminals.

SpaceX hopes to use revenue from the Starlink business unit to help fund the company’s ambitions to complete development of the Starship heavy rocket, a massive, fully reusable launch vehicle designed to eventually replace the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.

The 49 Starlink satellites launched Tuesday evening – each about a quarter ton in mass – will deploy solar arrays and use ion thrusters to climb to an operational altitude of 335 miles (540 kilometers).

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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