SpaceX is in the process of deploying its satellite internet network called Starlink. On June 3, SpaceX successfully deployed a fleet of 60 internet-beaming Starlink satellites. A previously-flown Falcon 9 rocket ignited its nine Merlin engines at around 9:25 p.m. EDT, illuminating the night sky as it quickly flew out of Earth’s atmosphere. The mission brought the total number of Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit to 480. Starlink will be a mega constellation of over 12,000 satellites that will mainly serve rural areas around the world, where internet access is unreliable and non-existent.
Liftoff! pic.twitter.com/N0INm0pPAb— SpaceX (@SpaceX) June 4, 2020
About 8 and a half minutes after liftoff, SpaceX reached another reusability milestone, as it successfully reused and recovered a Falcon 9 rocket a 5th time. The company recovers the Falcon 9’s first-stage booster by performing vertical landings on autonomous drone ships at sea. Reusability reduces the cost of spaceflight. The Falcon 9 that deployed the Starlink fleet landed on an autonomous drone ship called Just Read The Instructions –it marked the 54th orbital-class booster landing!
Falcon 9’s first stage has landed on the Just Read the Instructions droneship – the first orbital class rocket booster to successfully launch and land five times! pic.twitter.com/WCiFyyGn7g— SpaceX (@SpaceX) June 4, 2020
SpaceX is the only company in the world that can return its rockets first-stage booster from space. The company also attempted to recover the rocket’s payload fairing, which is the top nose cone where the satellites ride. Each fairing halves features a parachute deployment system and small steering thrusters. As each fairing falls from space, it conducts a parachute-assisted landing in the ocean, where two fairing recovery ships, called “Ms. Tree” and “Ms. Chief,” attempt to catch them with a large net. SpaceX has not released details on whether they recovered the fairings, yet.
Successful deployment of 60 Starlink satellites confirmed pic.twitter.com/adsQIKfT0F— SpaceX (@SpaceX) June 4, 2020
Approximately 15 minutes after liftoff, Falcon 9's second-stage deployed the cluster of 60 satellites which will raise into an operational altitude over the course of around three weeks. These satellites will utilize their onboard krypton powered ion thrusters to raise their orbits to 550 kilometers. They will operate at that altitude in groups of 20 satellites per dispersed in 3 orbital planes.
Astronomers fear Starlink will affect cosmic observations, due to the fact Starlink fleets appear like a train of bright pearly lights right after deployment. SpaceX is actively working with senior members of the astronomy community to figure out how to make the satellites less bright. “We also firmly believe in the importance of a natural night sky for all of us to enjoy, which is why we have been working with leading astronomers around the world to better understand the specifics of their observations and engineering changes we can make to reduce satellite brightness. Our goals include: Making the satellites generally invisible to the naked eye within a week of launch. We're doing this by changing the way the satellites fly to their operational altitude, so that they fly with the satellite knife-edge to the Sun,” SpaceX explains, “Minimizing Starlink's impact on astronomy by darkening satellites so they do not saturate observatory detectors. We're accomplishing this by adding a deployable visor to the satellite to block sunlight from hitting the brightest parts of the spacecraft.” The brightness is due to the sun rays hitting the most reflective parts of the satellites, which are the solar array and the flat antennas on the satellites’ chassis. To address the issue, this mission included one experimental Starlink satellite, referred to as VisorSat, which features a visor that will act as a sunshade to minimize the satellite’s brightness and visibility from the ground. In the weeks ahead engineers will assess how VisorSat performs. The company says the next Starlink fleet of 60 will be equipped with a visor.
The United States Air Force is currently assessing the Starlink network on the cockpit of military airplanes. Space-based internet from satellites is more reliable than terrestrial internet providers because in space, there is no threat from extreme weather and earthquakes, that can destroy ground communication systems. Satellites continually beam signal down to Earth which is useful when disaster strikes; the military must have constant, reliable communication during operations.
SpaceX aims to roll out service to the public in parts of Northern United States and Canada before this year comes to an end. According to SpaceX officials, the network needs about 800 satellites to offer "moderate" internet coverage. Starlink customers will receive internet connection via a 19-inch user terminal that looks like a "UFO on a stick."
About the Author
Evelyn J. Arevalo joined Tesmanian in 2019 to cover news as a Space Journalist and SpaceX Starbase Texas Correspondent. Evelyn is specialized in rocketry and space exploration. The main topics she covers are SpaceX and NASA.