CAPE CANAVERAL (CBS) — While much of the world stands still, SpaceX is still going strong and launched a Falcon 9 rocket Wednesday from Cape Canaveral.
The Falcon 9 rocket launched a seventh batch of 60 Starlink satellites boosting SpaceX’s total to 420 in an accelerating campaign to deploy a globe-spanning network of internet relay satellites.
In so doing, SpaceX chalked up the 84th launch of a Falcon 9 since the rocket’s debut 10 years ago this June as the company gears up for the historic May 27 launch of a Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying two astronauts to the International Space Station.
That launch will mark the first for a U.S. rocket carrying NASA astronauts since the shuttle fleet was retired in 2011, representing a major milestone in NASA’s push to end the agency’s sole reliance on Russian Soyuz ferry ships for access to the space station.
Wednesday’s flight began at 3:30 p.m. EDT when the nine first-stage engines in the Falcon ‘s first stage ignited and throttled up to 1.7 million pounds of thrust. An instant later, the 229-foot-tall rocket roared aloft and arced away on a northeasterly trajectory
Two-and-a-half minutes later, after boosting the Falcon 9 out of the thick lower atmosphere, the first stage engines shut down, the stage fell away and the climb to orbit continued on the power of a single vacuum-rated engine in the rocket’s second stage.
The first stage, meanwhile, flipped around, fired three engines to slow down and fell back to Earth, guiding itself to a landing on the SpaceX droneship “Of Course I Still Love You” stationed a few hundred miles off the Florida coast. It was SpaceX’s 51st successful booster recovery, it’s 32nd on a droneship.
About 10 seconds after the first stage landed, the second stage engine shut down and six minutes later, the 60 Starlink satellites, each weighing about 573 pounds, were released in a stack, slowly spreading apart as they departed.
Steven Young, publisher of Astronomy Now and Spaceflight Now, watched the deployment from southeast England as the spacecraft flew overhead.
“Through binoculars, the separating Starlink satellites looked like a bright star cluster speeding across the sky,” he said in a text.
SpaceX has regulatory approval to launch more than 12,000 Starlink satellites, in multiple orbital planes, to provide uninterrupted high-speed internet access from any point on Earth using small pizza box-size terminals.
The company plans to begin limited commercial service across the northern United States and Canada later this year after completing 12 launches to put 720 satellites into orbit.
Going into Wednesday’s launch campaign, SpaceX had deployed 360 Starlinks over six missions, but three were later deorbited. The rest presumably are operational.
The growing Starlink constellation continues to raise alarm in the astronomical community. The concern is that sunlight reflecting off multiple satellites above the horizon at any given moment, along with their radio traffic, could disrupt observations by the world’s largest optical and radio telescopes.
But SpaceX officials say engineers are testing a variety of modifications, including darker surface coatings and sunshades to minimize reflections off solar panels.
“We are taking some key steps to reduce satellite brightness,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted going into Wednesday’s launch. “Should be much less noticeable during orbit raise by changing solar panel angle & all sats get sunshades starting with launch 9.”