SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center in first light Friday with 53 Starlink internet satellites, completing overnight space operations just five hours after returning four astronauts to flight off Florida’s west coast.
A sky-lighting Falcon 9 rocket over the Florida space coast fired nine Merlin main engines and ascended from Platform 39A in Kennedy at 5:42 a.m. EDT (0942 GMT) on Friday. SpaceX brought the Dragon capsule back to Earth at 12:43 a.m. EDT (0443 GMT), bringing back a crew of four from the International Space Station.
Friday’s launch was the seventh Falcon 9 mission since April 1, a pace close to the planned tempo of one launch every five days recently announced by SpaceX founder Elon Musk. SpaceX is planning up to 60 Falcon rocket missions this year from the company’s three operational launch platforms.
Two of the April launches carried crews to the space station.
“It’s a very special time for us,” Bill Gerstenmaier, SpaceX’s vice president of construction and flight reliability, said at a press briefing in the early hours of Friday morning between the crew launch ceremony and the launch of Starlink.
“I think the great thing here at SpaceX is that we have individual teams that keep track of all of these activities, and they focus on their individual work, and each one of them is working in their own area,” Gerstenmaier said. “We still share information with each other, and this helps us ensure the safety of the spacecraft.
“So when we launch these additional Starlink flights, we’re really learning things that we can then take and report to the crew flights, and make sure that the Falcon 9s that are connected to the crew flights are actually better than they would have been if we didn’t have those Starlink flights.”
“I think it’s a good time to travel to space, to think we’re well prepared as a company to support these multiple activities,” said Gerstenmaier, a former NASA engineer and program manager. “Our heads don’t swing. We really focus on each individual activity, and we can get them done one by one.”
NASA has a multi-billion dollar contract with SpaceX to provide crew transportation services to the space station. Besides SpaceX’s commercial launches, NASA engineers are responsible for oversight to ensure that the agency’s astronaut missions launch and land safely.
“SpaceX has a tremendous amount of automation in place in terms of data reviews,” said Steve Stitch, director of the Commercial Crew Program at NASA. “They can do things quickly. They produce massive reports on the launch or docking process, and then we can take that data and ingest it very quickly.
The company also has “attention to detail” and makes sure “we do every process that requires workmanship and precision, carefully and correctly,” Stich said. “I’ve seen SpaceX step down and take time out at times when they might feel like the team needs a break, needs a little bit of a break.
“And then you’ve seen us make good decisions together, where we need to go and sometimes you need to do extra work on the car to make it safer. So it’s an exciting time. We’re learning from every ride.”
The Friday morning launch marked the 152nd rocket flight for SpaceX Falcon 9, and the company’s 18th launch of the year. SpaceX’s 44th mission was primarily dedicated to launching satellites of the privately funded broadband Starlink network.
Cloud cover over the launch base distorted the views of spectators closest to the platform, but the launch timing, about an hour before sunrise, yielded stunning results for skywatchers across other parts of Florida and along the east coast of the United States as Falcon 9 rose to sunlight. The missile blasted northeast from Cape Canaveral to target one of the planes or orbital paths in the Starlink constellation.
The first stage of the Falcon 9, tail number B1058 in SpaceX inventory, closed about two and a half minutes after takeoff to begin a descent toward the company’s unmanned ship “A Shortfall of Gravitas” parked a few hundred miles away in the Atlantic Ocean.
The thrust landing occurred about eight and a half minutes after liftoff, moments before the Falcon 9’s second-stage engine completed its first launch to put the 53 Starlink satellites into parking orbit. The boost stage became the third in the SpaceX fleet to fly 12 times, the current record for Falcon 9 stages.
This booster made its debut in May 2020 with the launch of the first test flight of the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft to transport astronauts. With launch Friday morning, the booster helped pull 637 satellites and two people into space/.
The Falcon 9 re-ignited the Merlin-Vacuum upper stage engine about 45 minutes into the mission, paving the way to separate 53 Starlink satellites at T+ plus 54 minutes and 30 seconds. SpaceX has confirmed a good payload deployment.
Satellite retaining rails have been eliminated in a flat-packed form on the rocket, allowing Starlink platforms to fly away from the second stage. They will open solar arrays and run through automated activation steps, then use krypton-fueled ion engines to maneuver their operating orbit.
The Falcon 9 deploys the satellites in a semicircular orbit between 189 and 197 miles (304 by 317 kilometers), at an orbital inclination of 53.2 degrees to the equator. The satellites will use onboard thrust to do the rest of the work to reach a circular orbit 335 miles (540 kilometers) above Earth.
The Starlink satellites will fly on Friday’s mission in one of five orbital “shells” used in SpaceX’s global web. After ascending into their operational orbit, the satellites will enter commercial service and begin transmitting broadband signals to consumers, who can purchase Starlink service and connect to the network using a ground station provided by SpaceX.
After launching the Starlink 4-17 on Friday, SpaceX has deployed 2,494 Starlink satellites into orbit, including spacecraft that have either decommissioned or experienced failures. More than 2,100 of these satellites are in orbit and operational as of this week, according to a list maintained by Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist who tracks spaceflight activity.
This makes Starlink’s fleet the largest satellite constellation in the world, nearly five times greater than the fleet of online satellites owned by rival OneWeb.
SpaceX is in the midst of launching about 4,400 Starlink satellites into the network’s five orbital missiles. The first of the five shells were filled last year, and SpaceX is expected to begin firing additional ones later this year. All orbits are between 335 and 350 miles above Earth, while some are in medium inclination orbits — like the Friday mission target — and others are in polar orbits.
SpaceX’s upcoming Falcon 9 rocket, which also carries Starlink internet satellites, is scheduled to launch on Tuesday, May 10, from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
Send an email to the author.
Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: Tweet embed.