Falcon 9 deploys 56 Starlink satellites in SpaceX’s 20th launch of the year – Spaceflight Now

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket descends after takeoff Friday morning from Cape Canaveral. Credit: Michael Caine/Spaceflight Now/Coldlife Photography

SpaceX continued its Starlink internet satellite launch Friday, sending a Falcon 9 rocket aloft from Cape Canaveral with 56 older-generation broadband spacecraft as ground teams troubleshoot issues with a batch of upgraded Starlinks launched this month. the past.

Fifty-six satellites are packed atop a 229-foot (70-meter) Falcon 9 rocket for liftoff at 11:43:10 a.m. EDT (1543:10 UTC) Friday from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station . Riding 1.7 million pounds of vibrating thrust from nine Merlin kerosene-fueled main engines, Falcon 9 accelerated faster than the speed of sound in about a minute as it raced across sunny skies heading southeast off Cape Canaveral.

Following a now-familiar routine, the rocket’s first stage shut down its nine engines two and a half minutes after liftoff, then descended to begin an arc toward the SpaceX landing pad, or drone ship, positioned about 410 miles (660 km) away. kilometers) southeast of Cape Canaveral, or northeast of the Bahamas. The rocket, numbered B1067 in SpaceX’s inventory, restarted a subset of its engines to slow its entry and descent speed, then came to rest on the surface of the floating platform about eight and a half minutes into the mission.

The recovery team will bring the rocket, now a veteran of 10 spaceflights, back to Cape Canaveral for a refurbishment ahead of a future mission. A separate team from SpaceX in the Atlantic was on station to recover the rocket’s payload halves, or nose cone, after they parachuted into the sea.

The Falcon 9 second stage fired its single engine twice to inject 56 Starlink satellites into orbit about 200 miles (300 kilometers) above Earth, at an inclination of 43 degrees to the equator. SpaceX confirmed the successful deployment of 56 spacecraft just over an hour into the mission.

The 56 spacecraft launched Friday totaled about 17.4 metric tons, or more than 38,000 pounds, which was the record for the heaviest payload ever launched on a SpaceX rocket with a previous Starlink launch in January. The company’s engineers experimented with throttle settings, fuel efficiency, and other minor upgrades to extend the Falcon 9’s lift capacity.

Another Falcon 9 launch scheduled for Wednesday from Cape Canaveral will carry more than 50 Starlink internet satellites.

The SpaceX mission was originally scheduled to launch on Friday and the SpaceX mission next week will provide larger batches of SpaceX’s second-generation Starlink satellites. SpaceX said the second-generation Starlink V2 mini satellites are equipped with improved phased array antennas and have four times the communications capacity of previous generations of Starlink satellites, known as version 1.5.

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The first group of 21 Starlink V2 Mini satellites launched Feb. 27 on a Falcon 9 rocket, which launched the spacecraft into orbit at an altitude of about 230 miles (370 kilometers). Publicly available orbital data showed that the satellites lifted the altitude to about 240 miles (about 380 kilometers), but the spacecraft began its gradual descent in mid-March.

Starlink satellites typically activate their thrusters to begin maneuvering from their initial orbit, where they are deployed by a Falcon 9 rocket, to higher operating altitudes of more than 300 miles above Earth. The pause in orbital excitement has raised questions among some observers about the status of the new Starlink V2 Mini satellites.

“Lots of new technology in Starlink V2, so we’re running into some issues, as expected,” Musk tweeted on Wednesday. He added that some Starlink V2 Minis could be deorbited, while others would be “rigorously tested” before boosting above the height of the International Space Station, which flies 260 miles (420 kilometers) high.

The Falcon 9 launch on Friday and the next flight from Florida on Wednesday were originally supposed to carry upgraded Starlink V2 Mini satellites, but SpaceX has replaced the second-generation satellite constellations with older Starlink V1.5 spacecraft assemblies. SpaceX has not confirmed whether problems with the first 21 Starlink V2 Mini satellites were the reason for the payload swap on the next two Falcon 9 missions.

Friday’s launch is designated Starlink 5-5 in SpaceX’s launch sequence, and the mission set for March 29 is named Starlink 5-10. The launches carry groups of satellites of older design into orbits that are part of the second-generation, or Gen2, Starlink constellation, which will eventually power primarily Starlink V2 Mini satellites and a larger spacecraft platform called the Starlink V2-sized spacecraft to launch on SpaceX’s future Super Massive. Heavy Booster and Starship missile.

Starship has nearly 10 times the payload capacity of a Falcon 9 rocket, with a larger satellite size as well.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral to launch the Starlink 5-5 mission. Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now

According to Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist and expert tracker of spaceflight activities, SpaceX has launched 4,161 Starlink satellites to date, and 3,858 of the spacecraft are currently in orbit, including 56 satellites that were deployed Friday. The rest were prototypes, failed spacecraft, or satellites deliberately ordered to re-enter the atmosphere and burn up.

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It wasn’t surprising, McDowell said, that SpaceX had difficulties activating the new Starlink V2 Mini satellites.

“You’re launching a new satellite design,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for the first weeks of a new satellite flyby to be like, ‘Oh, we’ve got some problems coming up, we have to get some things right before we can get the satellite working.'” “

Another design change to the Starlink V2 Mini Enhanced Satellite is in the propulsion system. The new satellites are propelled by an argon-fueled electric propulsion system, which is capable of producing 2.4 times the thrust with 1.5 times the specific thrust, or fuel efficiency, of the krypton-fueled ion thrusts on the first generation of Starlink satellites.

Each Starlink V2 Mini satellite weighs approximately 1,760 lb (800 kg) at launch, nearly three times heavier than older Starlink satellites. It’s also larger, with a spacecraft fuselage more than 13 feet (4.1 meters) wide, and filling more payload for a Falcon 9 rocket during launch, according to regulatory filings with the Federal Communications Commission.

The larger, heavier satellite platform means the Falcon 9 rocket can only launch about 21 Starlink V2 Mini payloads at a time, compared to more than 50 Starlink V1.5s in a single Falcon 9 launch.

“V2 Minis, they’re not quite a clean design from V1.5, but there’s a lot of new stuff on them, so we shouldn’t be surprised that they have some teething issues,” McDowell said.

The Starlink V2 satellites will be able to transmit signals directly to mobile phones, a step forward in communication from space that other companies are also seeking. The V2 Mini satellites offer an E-band for backhaul connections with gateway stations.

“This means Starlink can deliver more bandwidth while increasing reliability and connecting millions of people around the world to high-speed internet,” SpaceX said ahead of the first launch of the Starlink V2 Mini satellites last month.

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The deployable solar panels on each Starlink V2 Mini satellite span 100 feet (30 meters) end-to-end. Each of the previous generation Starlink V1.5 satellites has a single solar array wing, with each spacecraft measuring approximately 36 feet (11 meters) end-to-end once the solar panel is extended.

The improvements give the Starlink V2 Mini satellites a total surface area of ​​1,248 square feet, or 116 square meters, more than four times the area of ​​a Starlink V1.5 satellite.

The FCC granted SpaceX approval on December 1 to launch up to 7,500 of the planned 29,988 Starlink Gen2 constellation, which will be deployed in slightly different orbits than the original Starlink fleet. The regulatory agency has delayed a decision on the remaining proposed second-generation SpaceX satellites.

The Starlink 5-5 mission delivered 56 Starlink internet satellites into orbit. Credit: Spaceflight Now

SpaceX began launching older-generation Starlink V1.5 satellites in the Gen2 constellation on December 28.

The FCC previously authorized SpaceX to launch and operate approximately 4,400 first-generation Ka-band and Ku-band Starlink spacecraft launched by SpaceX since 2019.

Gen2 satellites can improve Starlink’s coverage in low latitudes, and help relieve pressure on the network from increased consumer uptake. SpaceX says the network has more than 1 million active subscribers, most of whom are homes in areas where traditional fiber connectivity is unavailable, unreliable, or expensive.

The Starlink spacecraft transmits broadband Internet signals to consumers around the world, and the means of communication is now available on all seven continents.

SpaceX vice president of commercial sales Jonathan Hoefler said earlier this month that the company produces about six satellites a day at the Starlink plant near Seattle.

Side-by-side comparison of Starlink V1.5 and Starlink V2 Mini satellites. Credit: SpaceX / Spaceflight Now

Friday’s launch was SpaceX’s 20th mission of the year, setting the company on pace for approximately 88 Falcon rocket flights in 2023. The company started the year with a goal of launching 100 Falcon rockets, not counting the planned debut of the much larger Starship. rocket.

Aside from next week’s Starlink mission from Cape Canaveral, SpaceX is preparing to launch a Falcon 9 rocket Thursday from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California with an array of small satellites for the US Army’s Space Development Agency.

As many as six Falcon 9 rockets and one Falcon Heavy rocket—made by combining three Falcon 9 first-stage cores together—are on SpaceX’s April launch schedule.

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