SpaceX launches Starlink satellites from California on unusual trajectory along coast – Spaceflight Now

A Falcon 9 rocket takes off from Space Launch Complex 4-East at Vandenberg Space Force Base with 52 Starlink Internet satellites. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX deployed 52 more Starlink internet satellites to orbit early Saturday after a pre-dawn launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base that carried a Falcon 9 rocket to an unusual runway southeast of the West Coast Spaceport over Baja California.

The 70-meter-tall launcher fired its nine Merlin 1D engines, accelerated to 1.7 million pounds of thrust, and descended from Space Launch Complex 4-East in Vandenberg early Saturday, carrying the next batch of satellites in the space. for SpaceX’s global broadband network.

Liftoff occurred at 4:41:40 a.m. PST (0741:40 EST; 12:41:40 GMT), marking the seventh and final orbital launch attempt of the year from the space force base. de Vandenberg and the 19th total SpaceX mission from the launch facility on California’s scenic Central Coast.

The Falcon 9 flew into a clear sky without fog or clouds that often obscured the visualization of the launch at Vandenberg.

Two and a half minutes after launch, all nine stage one engines shut down and the thruster separated, initiating a descent toward SpaceX’s “Of course, I still love you” drone stationed about 650 kilometers away. southeast of Vandenberg. off Baja California.

The single upper-stage Merlin engine ignited to accelerate in orbit and shifted the rocket’s path slightly to the right in a “dogleg” maneuver to align with the mission’s target orbital plane. The course took the top stage of the Falcon 9 and the 52 Starlink satellites over Baja California during the last part of the six-minute orbital insertion burn /

Meanwhile, the 15-story first stage nailed its landing on the football-sized salvage platform. The mission set a new record for the most stolen booster in SpaceX’s inventory, designated B1051, with its 11th launch and landing since its debut in March 2019.

The mission, named Starlink 4-4 on SpaceX’s launch schedule, targeted an elliptical or egg-shaped transfer orbit extending 212 miles (341 kilometers) above Earth at its peak, or point The highest. SpaceX said the rocket reached its intended orbit before releasing the 52 Starlink flat-screen internet satellites about 15 and a half minutes after liftoff.

The deployment occurred as the rocket flew outside the range of the ground tracking stations. SpaceX has confirmed the successful payload separation when the Falcon 9’s top stage passed over an antenna in Chile.

The 52 satellites, each just over a quarter-ton, will use krypton-powered ion thrusters to maneuver in their operating orbits at an altitude of 335 miles (540 kilometers), joining the rest of the Starlink fleet providing a global internet service. With the latest batch of satellites, SpaceX has launched 1,944 Starlink spacecraft since May 2019.

A chart maintained by Jonathan McDowell, a highly respected astrophysicist and tracker of space flight activity, showed that prior to the Starlink 4-4 mission, SpaceX had 1,729 functional Starlink satellites in orbit. Of these, 1,467 satellites are operational, while the rest are still maneuvering within their slots in the constellation, or otherwise functioning but not providing Internet service.

SpaceX does not publish details on which of its Starlink satellites are operational, leaving outside experts like McDowell to collect and disseminate the information.

Jonathan Hofeller, vice president of Starlink and SpaceX commercial sales, said on Tuesday that the Starlink network provides Internet service to consumers in more than 20 countries.

“We have more than 100,000 subscribers, both on the consumer and business side,” he told a panel discussion at Euroconsult’s annual World Satellite Business Week event in Paris. “And we’re not slowing down. We just warmed up.

SpaceX has a long-term plan to launch up to 42,000 Starlink satellites, according to a company filed with the International Telecommunications Union. The company’s initial goal is to deploy approximately 4,400 satellites in five orbital “shells” at different inclinations.

The five Starlink orbital shells are all located between 335 and 348 miles (540 and 560 kilometers), at inclinations of 53, 53.2, 70 and 97.6 degrees. SpaceX completed launches in the 53-degree orbital shell in May and began launching satellites in a 70-degree orbital shell from Vandenberg in September.

Saturday’s launch was the third to target the 53.2-degree tilt shell, which flies almost parallel to the 53-degree shell filled earlier this year. The two previous launches at 53.2 degrees took off from Cape Canaveral.

Starlink’s next launch from Vandenberg was originally scheduled to go into a 70-degree orbital plane, but SpaceX grounded the mission in October without explanation. SpaceX launched a NASA asteroid probe from its Vandenberg platform on November 24. With the next opening of the company’s West Coast launch schedule available in mid-December, SpaceX swung the launch target to a 53.2-degree orbit.

The Falcon 9 rocket ground track took the launcher over Baja California en route to orbit with 52 Starlink Internet satellites. Credit: SpaceX

Hofeller said SpaceX will start launching more satellites into the polar orbital shell as early as January. So far, SpaceX has launched a handful of Starlinks to polar orbit on carpool missions, but has had no dedicated Starlink flights for the polar hull.

The Starlink satellites that began launching in the second half of this year all carry inter-satellite laser links, which also allow the network to transmit Internet traffic from spacecraft to spacecraft, with no intermediate step to relay the signals through. a ground station.

“Our first generation hull is used and complete, and we are launching our next generation hull, which includes our inter-satellite links, as well as polar, in about a month,” Hofeller said on Tuesday.

“Right now, as we speak, we are in cell phone towers, we are in airplanes, we are in schools, hospitals,” said Hofeller.We are everywhere. Connectivity is not lacking.

The booster used on Saturday morning is the most stolen booster in SpaceX’s reusable first stage fleet. Another rocket made 10 flights and two racked up nine launches and landings.

The payload shroud that protected the 52 Starlink satellites during the first minutes of atmospheric flight on Saturday was also reused from previous missions. One half of the shell-shaped nose cone was on its fourth trip to space, and the other was flying a third time.

When SpaceX launched the first of its latest generation of Falcon 9 rockets, called Block 5, in 2018, officials said the upgraded boosters could fly 10 times before needing a major refurbishment. But that changed with the experience of flying.

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, said earlier this year that there doesn’t seem to be an “obvious limit” to reusing Falcon 9 boosters. “We intend to pilot the Falcon 9 booster until that we see some kind of failure with the Starlink missions, obviously, just to be a leader of life, ”he said in April.

SpaceX extended the life of its boosters by launching the company’s own Starlink satellites, which SpaceX is building at a factory in Redmond, Washington.

Since the launch of the reused Falcon 9 first stage during a mission in 2017, SpaceX has made agreements with all of its customers to fly payloads on recycled rockets. Seventy-seven of SpaceX’s 135 Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy flights have now used previously flown boosters.

Vandenberg’s Saturday launch was SpaceX’s 29th Falcon 9 flight of the year, but the company is not completed in 2021. Two more Falcon 9 launches are scheduled from launch pads in Florida on Saturday evening and Tuesday morning.

If the next Falcon 9 takes off on Saturday night, it will be the first time that two Falcon 9 rockets have flown on the same day.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @ StephenClark1.

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