The fifth launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 in just over three weeks delivered another 52 Starlink Internet satellites and two small payloads into orbit after the booming explosion from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday night.
The kerosene-powered rocket ignited its nine main Merlin engines, and the retaining brackets released the rocket to ascend from 39A at 6:56 p.m. EDT (2256 GMT) on Saturday.
Merlin’s engines eject 1.7 million pounds of thrust to propel the Falcon 9 rocket into the sky. The launch vehicle rose through scattered puffy clouds and twisted northeast of the Kennedy Space Center, exceeding the speed of sound for about a minute.
The Falcon 9 shut down its booster engines for about two and a half minutes after the flight, allowing the pneumatic pushers to release the first stage to begin the descent back to Earth.
As the upper stage of a rocket engine ignites to complete work to put the mission’s 54 payloads into orbit, the Falcon 9 booster – making its eighth space trip – lengthens its titanium grid fins and pulsating cold gas engines to orients to the tail first position to re-enter the atmosphere.
The booster headed for a SpaceX-sized drone “Of course I still love you,” a few hundred miles from Cape Canaveral in the Atlantic Ocean.
A stunning live video from a down-facing camera mounted on the outside of the booster shows the landing platform, which initially looked like a postage stamp in the deep blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The rocket’s central engine, using the grille’s stabilizing grilles, steered the booster to a perfectly unmanned drone that would return the reusable vehicle to Cape Canaveral for repairs and its next mission.
The Falcon 9’s payload cover has also been recycled from previous missions. Each half of the clam-like bow cone had flown once before, and another recovery boat hired by SpaceX was at a station in the Atlantic to retrieve the hulls after parachuting into the sea.
The upper stage of the rocket ended with two engine burns to place the 52 Starlink satellites and two rideshare payloads in orbit at about 357 miles (575 kilometers) at an altitude of 53 degrees to the equator.
The upper stage first uses a small satellite called Tyvak 0130, built by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, a small spacecraft manufacturer in Irvine, California. SpaceX did not disclose details about the Tyvak 0130 spacecraft and Tyvak did not specify the mission on its website.
A regulatory document published on the NOAA website says that the federal agency that oversees the licensing of US remote sensing satellites has granted Tyvak approval in 2019 for “the operation of a private space remote monitoring system named Tyvak 0130 “.
The document describes the Tyvak 0130 as a “satellite for observing the astronomical spectrum”, but does not offer further details. The age of the document may also mean that the description may be dated.
Capella Space’s fourth commercial radar satellite also joined the mission on Saturday. The spacecraft, with a takeoff weight of about 100 kilograms, will join three other operational satellites for remote monitoring of the Capella radar.
The new Capella radar satellite detached from the top of the stack of Starlink satellites about an hour from Saturday’s mission.
Based in San Francisco, Capella is one of several companies developing fleets of radar satellite satellites. After launch, the Capella spacecraft will deploy its radar reflector antenna to a diameter of about 11.5 feet (3.5 meters) and begin collecting images.
Capella already has contracts with the National Intelligence Service, the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy to investigate the military uses of commercial radar satellite imagery. Last year, the National Agency for Geospatial Intelligence signed a research and development cooperation agreement (CRADA) to allow researchers from the US government’s intelligence community to help Capella.
The planned constellation of small Capella satellites will allow for a quick review, which will allow the company’s orbital radar observers to collect images in the same places several times a day. This will allow government and commercial customers to detect changes in the environment.
Other remote monitoring companies have similar business plans.
Planeta, another San Francisco-based company, operates a fleet of about 150 small optical Earth observation satellites. BlackSky is also deploying a constellation of optical spacecraft for remote sensing.
But Capella’s satellites use synthetic aperture radar technology that allows images to be collected night and day and in all weather conditions. Optical satellites are limited to daylight observations and cloudless skies.
Capella initially deployed a fleet of seven radar satellites for remote monitoring. This can increase with sufficient demand, the company said.
Capella is licensed by NOAA, which regulates space remote sensing by US companies, for a constellation of 36 small radar satellites. The company says it is also authorized by US regulators to sell high-resolution radar images worldwide.
The launch on Saturday was the 28th flight of the Falcon 9 with the main goal of deploying Starlink satellites. This was Starlink’s fourth flight carrying payloads from other customers.
SpaceX sells the capacity of its Starlink missions for small satellites. Engineers can adjust the number of Starlink spacecraft for a mission to make room for the rideshare payload, resulting in 52 Starlink satellites launching on Saturday.
SpaceX publishes information about the prices of its smalsatsat rideshare service. According to the SpaceX website, he paid $ 1 million to launch a 440-pound (200-pound) satellite with a rideshare mission and less for smaller payloads.
With the secondary payloads away from the rocket, the upper stage of the Falcon 9 moved into space until it reached the predetermined location of 52 Starlink satellites.
The flat-panel spacecraft, built at the SpaceX facility in Redmond, Washington, is separated from the rocket over Mexico. Each of the 573-kilogram (260-kilogram) satellites deploys a solar panel before using ion pushers to maneuver to a slightly lower altitude of 550 kilometers to join the rest of the constellation Starlink.
The launch on Saturday resulted in a total of 1677 Starlink Internet satellites launched, including prototypes and failed platforms, which were decommissioned and disposed of.
An analysis by Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer and respected observer of spaceflight, suggests that SpaceX had 1,526 working Starlink satellites before orbit on Saturday, with 886 operational spacecraft, plus hundreds more maneuvering to their final location in the constellation.
The Starlink network is the largest satellite fleet in history, and SpaceX is adding more spacecraft to expand the constellation to provide high-speed, low-latency global Internet service. SpaceX currently provides intermediate Internet services through Starlink satellites to users in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany and New Zealand.
The company, founded and run by billionaire Elon Musk, announced earlier this month that it was expanding Starlink’s testing program to customers in France and Austria. SpaceX revealed on Saturday that Starlink’s beta testing will soon begin in the Netherlands.
SpaceX has been approved by the Federal Communications Commission to launch and operate about 12,000 Starlink satellites.
The launch of the Falcon 9 on Saturday was the first of two rockets from the Florida space coast planned for less than two days.
A SpaceX rival of SpaceX’s Atlas 5 rocket was launched to Substrate 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Station on Saturday morning in preparation for a mission to launch on Monday afternoon with a billion d0llar US military missile satellite.
The launch will mark ULA’s first flight from Cape Canaveral this year. SpaceX has already registered 15 launches of Falcon 9 so far in 2021, all originating from the Florida space coast.
Five of these Falcon 9 launches have occurred in the last 22 days.
The busy series of Falcon 9 rocket launches began on April 23 with the removal of a Crew Dragon capsule from a 39A pad with four astronauts heading to the International Space Station. SpaceX followed that flight with a launch on April 28 from the nearby Cape Canaveral space station with 60 Starlink satellites.
Two more Falcon 9 rockets departed the sprawling Florida spaceport on May 4 and May 9, each also carrying a stack of 60 Starlink spacecraft.
The next launch of the Falcon 9 is scheduled for May 26 from Site 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Station with the next batch of Starlink broadband satellite.
Email the author.
Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @ StephenClark1.