In thick fog, SpaceX launched another batch of Starlink Internet satellites on Monday evening, pulling 51 enhanced relay stations into polar orbit from Vandenberg Space Force base in California.
The flight took place just two days before the scheduled launch of another Falcon 9 from Florida on Wednesday carrying four civilians into the air on the first non-government commercial flight to orbit. The Inspiration4 mission was organized by tech billionaire Jared Isaacman to raise funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
While not as dramatic, the launch of Starlink nonetheless marked a milestone for SpaceX, the project’s first flight to orbit the Earth’s poles using new internet beacons with satellite laser communication links. to satellite to minimize the time wasted relaying data through ground stations.
“We are currently piloting a number of laser terminals in space, and we are probably working on our third generation,” Gwynne Shotwell, President and CEO of SpaceX, said at a recent conference. “That’s why we haven’t piloted Starlinks for six or eight weeks, because we wanted the next station to have the laser terminals.”
The goal, she said, is to continue to improve the Starlink network “by putting more capacity in space, and I’m really looking forward to really connecting those who are very difficult to connect, the three to. five percent where fiber just doesn’t make sense. “
The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket, making a record-breaking 10th flight, came to life at 11:55 p.m. EDT (8:55 p.m. local time) and thundered away from Pad 4-East at Vandenberg northwest of Los Angeles through heavy fog.
After propelling the vehicle out of the dense lower atmosphere, the first stage collapsed, flipped over and plunged to Earth, landing on a SpaceX drone to mark the company’s 91st successful recovery of the booster, it is the 68th at sea.
Seconds later, the rocket’s second stage motor shut down, and six and a half minutes later, the 51 Starlinks were released to fly on their own, slowly dispersing as they moved away. Each small satellite will use on-board propulsion to reach its operational orbit.
With Monday’s launch, SpaceX put 1,791 Starlinks into orbit. More than 1,400 of them were supposed to be fully operational before the last flight.
Operating on multiple orbital planes, the Starlink satellite system is designed to ultimately bring relatively high-speed Internet access to any point on the planet, by routing data to and from small antennas and user terminals.
The laser crosslinks mentioned by Shotwell allow satellites to transfer a user’s internet traffic from one relay station to another as they pass and move beyond line of sight in their relatively low orbits.
OneWeb, which has already launched 288 of its own internet satellites, plans to launch 34 more on Tuesday using a Russian Soyuz booster. The company says it will achieve global coverage with 648 satellites operating in higher orbits than Starlinks.
“There are millions and billions of people who don’t have access to a decent internet,” Shotwell said. “So it’s a pretty big market. I’m not worried about how many organizations are interested in doing this. I’m interested and concerned about their sustainability in terms of the space environment.”
Many companies are about to enter the market with tens of thousands of small satellites eventually flooding low earth orbit. Critics are concerned about the increased possibility of high-speed collisions, creating debris that could wipe out other satellites.
Shotwell said SpaceX and OneWeb were cooperating “brilliantly” on collision avoidance, but added that it was not yet clear how other companies and countries would handle the threat.
“The worst day in the world for Starlink is having a collision,” she said. “We have absolutely no desire to create chaos in our orbits.… There is a huge focus on this within the Space Force to make sure we have great tracking, real-time updates, and I think we will continue to move towards a better system to regulate this. “