SpaceX launches 21 Starlink satellites on Falcon 9 rocket

SpaceX has successfully launched another batch of its Starlink internet satellites to orbit early Tuesday (Sept. 12), and landed the rocket at sea.

The mission, which lifted off from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California at 2:57 a.m. EDT (0657 GMT; 11:57 p.m. Sept. 11 local California time), marked the 11th launch and landing for the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage. This booster, designated B1060, is now tied with two other Falcon 9 boosters for the most flights and landings in SpaceX’s reusable rocket fleet.

The Falcon 9’s first stage came back to Earth about 8.5 minutes after liftoff, touching down on the SpaceX drone ship Of Course I Still Love You in the Pacific Ocean. The landing was broadcast live by SpaceX, which also showed the deployment of the Starlink satellites about 62 minutes after liftoff.

SpaceX launches 21 Starlink satellites on Falcon 9 rocket
SpaceX launches 21 Starlink satellites on Falcon 9 rocket

SpaceX has been reusing its Falcon 9 boosters to reduce the cost and increase the frequency of its launches. The company has launched 64 missions this year, surpassing its previous record of 61 launches in 2020. Most of these missions have been dedicated to expanding the Starlink megaconstellation, which aims to provide high-speed internet service around the world.

A growing constellation

The Starlink satellites launched on Tuesday are part of Group 7-2, a subset of the seventh batch of Starlink spacecraft that SpaceX has sent to orbit. The company has launched nearly 5,000 Starlink satellites to low Earth orbit (LEO) to date, but not all of them are operational. Some have been deorbited, others have failed, and some are still raising their orbits to reach their operational altitude of about 550 kilometers (340 miles).

SpaceX has permission from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to deploy up to 12,000 Starlink satellites in LEO, and it has applied to an international regulator for approval to loft another 30,000 spacecraft on top of that. The company’s founder and CEO Elon Musk has said that Starlink will need at least 1,000 satellites in orbit to provide moderate coverage, and about 10,000 satellites for full global coverage.

SpaceX has already begun offering Starlink service to customers in select regions, such as the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Europe. The service costs $99 per month, plus a one-time fee of $499 for the Starlink kit, which includes a user terminal, a mounting tripod, and a Wi-Fi router. SpaceX claims that Starlink can deliver speeds of 50 to 150 megabits per second, with latency ranging from 20 to 40 milliseconds.

A controversial project

While Starlink has been praised for its potential to bring internet access to remote and underserved areas, it has also faced criticism from astronomers and environmentalists who are concerned about its impact on the night sky and the orbital environment.

Starlink satellites are visible shortly after launch as a bright train of dots that streak across the sky. As they raise their orbits and orient their solar panels, they become less noticeable, but they can still reflect sunlight and interfere with astronomical observations. SpaceX has tried to mitigate this issue by adding visors or coatings to its satellites to reduce their reflectivity, but some astronomers say that these measures are not enough.

Starlink satellites also pose a risk of collision with other spacecraft or space debris in orbit. SpaceX has equipped its satellites with thrusters and collision avoidance software that allow them to maneuver out of harm’s way when alerted by the U.S. Space Force’s tracking system. However, some experts warn that relying on such maneuvers is not sustainable or reliable, especially as more satellites are added to LEO.

SpaceX is not the only company that is pursuing a megaconstellation project. Other competitors include OneWeb, Amazon’s Kuiper Systems, Telesat’s Lightspeed, and China’s Hongyun and Hongyan constellations. These projects will further increase the congestion and complexity of the orbital environment, raising the need for more regulation and coordination among space actors.

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