Image Source: Starlink
SpaceX's first rocket launch of 2020 will deploy Starlink satellites on Monday, January 6, from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. A previously used Falcon 9 rocket will lift off at 9:20 p.m. EST from Pad 40. SpaceX conducted a static-fire test today to prepare the rocket for next week's Starlink-2 mission. A static-fire test involves a very brief ignition of Falcon 9's Merlin engines. This test is part of every rocket pre-flight preparation. It is important to conduct a static-firing days ahead of liftoff because this is how engineers make sure that all systems are working properly. During static fire testing, the rocket is grounded on the launch pad while its 9 Merlin engines are quickly fired for a couple of seconds. SpaceX stated that the static fire test was completed this morning:
"Static fire test of Falcon 9 complete—targeting Monday, January 6 at 9:19 p.m. EST for launch of 60 Starlink satellites from Pad 40 in Florida."
The Falcon 9 rocket booster that will be utilized for this Starlink-2 mission previously launched three missions, these include: the Telstar 18 VANTAGE mission in September 2018, the Iridium-8 mission in January 2019, and a previous Starlink mission that took place in May 2019. Now, the same Falcon 9 first-stage booster will be reused a fourth time. The company aims to reduce the cost of spaceflight by reusing rocket parts. One of the their goals is to reuse the same rocket stage for up to 10 flights. They aim to use pre-flown rockets on all Starlink dedicated launches this year.
Falcon 9 first stage booster supporting this mission previously launched a Starlink mission, the Iridium-8 mission, and the Telstar 18 VANTAGE mission pic.twitter.com/QdailzdG4o— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 4, 2020
For Monday's mission, SpaceX is tasked to deploy 60 small, desk-sized Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit. Starlink is part of SpaceX's plan to fund their dream of colonizing Mars by offering internet services. The satellites will use the most advanced technology to beam low-latency, high-speed broadband internet connection from space at the speed of light.
A United States Air Force program, named Global Lightning, started testing Starlink satellites. They beamed high-speed encrypted internet into user terminals fixed to the cockpit of a C-12J Huron twin-enigne military airplane, an aircraft type used for passenger and cargo transport. SpaceX President, Gwynne Shotwell, said they also plan to test Starlink with "a number" of additional military aircraft types. Starlink has been, "one hundred times faster" than previous connections, she told reporters. They have been testing Starlink while flying and the technology has demonstrated internet speeds of 610 megabits per-second, equivalent to a gigabyte every ~13 seconds.
SpaceX aims to begin broadband service in some parts of the Unites States by the middle of this year, after 12 Starlink missions. Shotwell said global internet coverage will come after 24 launches, "We need 360 to 400 to have a constant connectivity where the satellites can end up through the ground talking to each other. Once we get to 1,200 satellites, we will have coverage of the whole globe." They have not announced pricing for the service yet, Shotwell shared in December:
"All I know is you will be far happier with the value of the Starlink service than you are with your current service. You will, for sure, get way more bandwidth for the same price, or way more bandwidth for less…You’ll be far happier with this. The value will be far greater.”
As of today, there are 120 small Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit. The first batch of 60 Starlink satellites was launched in May 2019, the second batch of 60 in November 2019. The third batch of 60 satellites will be deployed during on Monday night's launch. If this launch is successful, SpaceX will become the company with the world's largest satellite constellation composed of 180 Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit. They are scheduled to deploy hundreds more. They plans to conduct as many as 24 Starlink missions -that's an average of two Starlink launches per month.
Astronomers have concerns over the reflectivity of the satellites, SpaceX did not expect Starlink would be too bright in the night sky and are actively working to find a solution to not interfere with scientific observations. The upcoming Starlink-2 mission will feature one satellite with an experimental anti-reflectivity coating. Shotwell said:
"This next batch has one satellite that we’ve put a coating on the bottom. This is going to be an experiment … We’re going to do trial and error to figure out what’s the best way to get this done. But we are going to get it done."
They will test out the coating first, to see if the satellite coating's anti-reflective properties could interfere with the satellite's performance. If the anti-reflectivity coating works, they will use it on all their future satellite deployments. Each Starlink satellite has a short lifespan of 1 to 5 years compared to other larger satellites. So the more reflective satellites will not interfere with astronomic observations for too long. These satellites use Krypton-fueled electric ion thrusters to reach their target orbit after leaving the fairing, that feature could be used to deorbit them once they find a good solution to make them less bright, or if one of the satellites fails to work properly. Deorbiting would burn the satellite into the Earth’s atmosphere to ensure there is no space junk left behind once they’re no longer in use.
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.