Image Source: SpaceX
SpaceX initiated the new decade with their first successful rocket launch of 2020. Last night (January 6), during the Starlink-2 mission, a Falcon 9 rocket's nine Merlin 1D engines lit up the sky at 9:19 p.m. EST. lifting off from Launch Complex Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. A total of 60 Starlink internet satellites were deployed into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). This mission was the first to be overseen by the United States new branch of the military, the U.S. Space Force. Read more: The U.S Space Force will support a SpaceX mission for the first time!
A SpaceX launch commentator said during the live broadcast:
"Liftoff! Go Starlink! Go Falcon! Space Force inaugural launch!"
Liftoff! pic.twitter.com/jM0aEi4jFz— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 7, 2020
The Falcon 9's first-stage rocket booster used during last night's mission completed its fourth flight, marking the second time SpaceX has flown a booster four times. Rocket reusability is part of the company's goal to revolutionize space travel by creating a reusable launch system that could make spacecraft as reusable as airplanes and cars. This particular Falcon 9 rocket previously launched the first batch of Starlink satellites in May 2019, as well as the Iridium-8 and Telstar 18 VANTAGE missions years prior.
Falcon 9 first stage has landed on the Of Course I Still Love You droneship – SpaceX’s 48th successful landing of an orbital class rocket booster pic.twitter.com/wLal1xfsjO— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 7, 2020
After carrying the payload into orbit, the rocket's first-stage returned from space to touchdown on the Of Course I Still Love You droneship, an autonomous landing platform situated in the Atlantic Ocean. This is the first time in history an aerospace company has recovered a rocket booster for the 48th time! SpaceX is really paving the way towards full rocket reusability. Engineers designed this version of Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket to conduct up to 10 flights. They will attempt to fly a Falcon 9 for a fifth time this year!
Image Source: SpaceX
SpaceX also attempted to catch the rocket's fairing, which is the top nose cone section that protects the payload, with one of their experimental fairing catcher boats named, Ms. Tree. SpaceX engineer, Laurel Lyons, said during live commentary:
"We didn't catch it this time. We got really close. But we're going to keep on trying again."
Ms. Tree has four arms attached with a large net to catch the fairing as it lands from space. The rocket's fairing halves are equipped with small thrusters and a large parachute to soft land into the ocean. Salty ocean water can be very corrosive, so that's why SpaceX wants to attempt to catch it with a boat to keep it dry. They did not catch the fairing this time but will attempt again, next launch. By recovering and reusing a rocket fairing, SpaceX could save about $6 million per mission, that is approximately 10% of the total cost of a launch.
The 60 Starlink satellites that were deployed into LEO are part of SpaceX's plan to provide internet coverage around the world. The company aims to fund their space program, that includes building the first city on Mars, by offering Starlink's services. At approximately 61 minutes into the mission, the Starlink satellites deployed themselves into an altitude of 290 kilometers by using their integrated krypton powered ion thrusters.
Successful deployment of 60 Starlink satellites confirmed! pic.twitter.com/hA8eUp7dNI— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 7, 2020
Astronomers are worried that their scientific observations will be difficult to be performed due to the satellites' brightness. SpaceX will now figure out how to make them less bright by using a coating and moving the satellites' orbit into a higher altitude to make them "significantly less visible from the ground." It is important to know that the satellite's will remain visible for the next couple of weeks until they thrust themselves into a higher altitude. The company also says it’s "testing an experimental darkening treatment on one satellite." One out of the 60 satellites on this mission, features an experimental anti-reflectivity coating that aims to make the satellite less bright in the night sky.
This third launch of 60 Starlink satellites transformed SpaceX into the company with the world's largest constellation composed of up to 180 satellites. SpaceX CEO and founder, Elon Musk, has said they will need at least 400 satellites in orbit to provide minimal coverage, and at least 800 to provide moderate coverage. That coverage in portions of United States and Canada could begin sometime this year, after 4 rocket launches carrying 60 satellites each. Global internet coverage will come after 24 launches.
At least 4— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 7, 2020
"Looks like a thin, flat, round UFO on a stick. Starlink Terminal has motors to self-adjust optimal angle to view sky. Instructions are simply:
- Plug in socket
- Point at sky
These instructions work in either order. No training required."
Looks like a thin, flat, round UFO on a stick. Starlink Terminal has motors to self-adjust optimal angle to view sky. Instructions are simply:— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 7, 2020
- Plug in socket
- Point at sky
These instructions work in either order. No training required.
The satellites will use the most advanced technology to beam low-latency, high-speed broadband internet connection from space at the speed of light. Starlink technology was tested by the United States Air Force, it demonstrated internet speeds of 610 megabits per-second, equivalent to a gigabyte every ~13 seconds! Read more: The Air Force's Global Lightning program will test all SpaceX Starlink satellites.