Editor’s note: Watch our live replay of the Falcon 9 launch with Starlink mission 4-37.
SpaceX launched 54 Starlink internet satellites Saturday from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, using a Falcon 9 booster for its 15th flight into space, a record for the company’s reusable rocket fleet.
The 229-foot (70-meter) Falcon 9 lifted off at 4:32:30 p.m. EST (2132:30 GMT) Saturday from Launch Complex 39A. It was the third Falcon 9 launch in less than 34 hours, following Friday’s missions from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station — just a few miles from Platform 39A — and Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
Those flights deployed the US-French SWOT satellite, designed to survey Earth’s surface water resources, and two commercial broadband satellites of SES’s O3b mPOWER constellation.
SpaceX has delayed the launch of Starlink, designated Starlink 4-37, from Friday to focus on the O3b mPOWER mission for SES, one of SpaceX’s oldest customers.
Veering northeast of Florida’s Space Coast, Falcon 9 aims for a low Earth orbit inclined 53.2 degrees to the equator. The rocket’s upper stage launched 54 flat-packed Starlink satellites about 15 minutes into the mission.
The satellites aboard the Falcon 9 will add to the consumer’s high-speed, low-latency internet. Currently, subscribers can connect to the Starlink network in more than 40 countries and regions.
The first-stage booster on the Starlink 4-37 mission set a record for a SpaceX reusable rocket. The booster stage, tail number B1058, debuted May 30, 2020, with the historic launch of NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on SpaceX’s first human spaceflight mission.
He’s now flown 15 times so far, helping to deliver 777 satellites into orbit, including 54 Starlink internet satellites launched on Saturday. Missions carried out by the B1058 included a launch of a military communications satellite for South Korea, a space station cargo mission, two small satellite transport missions, and 10 flights with Starlink satellites.
Saturday’s launch was SpaceX’s first Starlink mission since Oct. 27. Since then, SpaceX has launched nine consecutive missions for commercial customers and the US government.
After Saturday’s mission, SpaceX launched 3612 Starlink satellites into orbit, including prototypes and failed spacecraft. The company currently has more than 3,200 operating Starlink satellites in space, with about 3,000 operating and nearly 200 moving into operational orbits, According to tabular by Jonathan McDowellan expert in spaceflight activity tracking and an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
54 new Starlink satellites have been launched into one of five orbital “shells” in SpaceX’s internet constellation.
SpaceX Shell 4 targeted a mission on Saturday. The network architecture includes satellites flying a few hundred miles high, orbiting with inclinations of 97.6°, 70°, 53.2°, and 53.0° to the equator. The spacecraft sends broadband internet signals to consumers around the world, and connectivity is now available on all seven continents with testing underway at a research station in Antarctica.
SpaceX is more than halfway done with the deployment of the initial fleet of 4,400 Starlink internet satellites. The company has received approval from the Federal Communications Commission to eventually launch and operate up to 12,000 Starlink spacecraft, and SpaceX has indicated that it may aim to launch up to 42,000 Starlink satellites into orbit.
SpaceX is developing an upgraded satellite design much larger than Starlink to be launched on the company’s next-generation Starship mega-rocket. But the spacecraft has yet to attempt a launch into low Earth orbit, and delays in development and testing of the new rocket will likely force SpaceX to begin launching a smaller version of the new Starlink satellite design on Falcon 9 rockets.
The Starlink network is designed as a project to help attract revenue to fund SpaceX’s ambition to build a base on Mars. The Starship rocket itself, designed to be fully reusable with relatively low operating costs, is central to Elon Musk’s Mars dream.
Saturday’s launch was SpaceX’s 59th launch so far in 2022. Two more Falcon 9 launches are scheduled before the end of the year, one from Florida and one from California.
The higher launch rate was supported by shorter lead times between missions at launch pads in Florida and California, and SpaceX’s reuse of Falcon 9 boosters and payload fairing. Launches carrying satellites for SpaceX’s Starlink internet network, such as Saturday’s mission, have accounted for more than half of the company’s Falcon 9 flights so far this year.
The SpaceX launch team, stationed inside the Launch Control Center south of Cape Canaveral Space Force Countdown Station Saturday, began loading ultra-cold condensed kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants into the Falcon 9 vehicle in T-minus 35 minutes.
Helium pressure material also flowed into the rocket in the last half hour of the countdown. In the final seven minutes before liftoff, the Falcon 9 Merlin’s main engines are thermally conditioned for flight through a procedure known as a “chilldown”. The Falcon 9’s guidance and field safety systems are also configured for launch.
After liftoff, the Falcon 9 rocket directed its 1.7 million pounds of power—produced by nine Merlin engines—to steer in the northeast Atlantic.
The missile exceeded the speed of sound in about one minute, then shut down its nine main engines two and a half minutes after liftoff. The booster stage fired from the Falcon 9’s upper stage then fired pulses from cold gas control thrusters and extended titanium grille fins to help guide the vehicle back into the atmosphere.
A brake burn slowed the missile as it descended the “just read the instructions” drone ship about 400 miles (650 kilometers) about nine minutes after liftoff.
The Falcon 9’s reusable payload fairing was discarded during the second stage burn. The salvage ship was also on station in the Atlantic to recover the nose cone halves after they had been sprayed under parachutes.
The landing of the first stage on Saturday’s mission occurred moments after the Falcon 9’s second stage engine to deliver the Starlink satellites into orbit stalled. The 54 Starlink spacecraft, built by SpaceX in Redmond, WA, have been confirmed to separate from a Falcon 9 rocket at T+ plus 15 minutes 22 seconds.
Retaining rods are released from the Starlink payload stack, allowing flat-packed satellites to fly freely from the Falcon 9’s upper stage into orbit. The 54 spacecraft will launch the solar arrays, power them through the steps of automated activation, and then use krypton-fueled ion engines to maneuver them into operational orbit.
The Falcon 9’s guidance computer aims to deploy the satellites into an elliptical orbit at an inclination of 53.2 degrees to the equator. The satellites will use onboard thrusters to do the rest of the work to get into a circular orbit 335 miles (540 kilometers) above Earth.
After reaching its operational orbit, the satellites will enter commercial service and begin transmitting broadband signals to consumers, who can purchase Starlink service and connect to the network through a SpaceX-provided ground station.
Rocket: Falcon 9 (B1058.15)
Payload: 54 Starlink satellites (Starlink 4-37)
Launch site: LC-39A, Kennedy Space Center, Florida
Lunch date: December 17, 2022
launch time: 4:32:30 PM EST (2132:30 GMT)
weather forecast: 60% chance of fair weather; low risk of upper level winds; Low to moderate risk of conditions unfavorable to an enhanced recovery
Recovery from boost: A drone ship with the “Just Read the Instructions” logo east of Charleston, South Carolina
AZIMUTH LAUNCH: the Northeast
target orbit: 144 miles by 208 miles (232 kilometers by 335 kilometers), 53.2 degrees
- T+00:00: take off
- T+01:12: Max Air Pressure (Max-Q)
- T+02:27: Main Engine Cut Off (MECO) First Stage
- T+02:31: Phase separation
- T+02:38: Second stage engine ignition
- T+02:42: Quiet off
- T+06:47: First stage entry burner ignition (three engines)
- T+07:06: First stage entry afterburner cut off
- T+08:28: 1st stage combustion ignition (single engine)
- T+08:41: Second stage engine cut off (SECO 1)
- T+08:49: First stage descent
- T+15:22: Starlink satellite disconnected
- The 192nd launch of the Falcon 9 since 2010
- 201st launch of the Falcon family since 2006
- Fifteenth launch of Falcon 9 Booster B1058
- The 164th Falcon 9 launch from the Florida Space Coast
- SpaceX launch #59 from Platform 39A
- 153rd launch overall from Board 39A
- Flight 131 of the repurposed Falcon 9 booster
- The 66th Falcon 9 launch is primarily for the Starlink network
- The 58th Falcon 9 launch in 2022
- SpaceX launch #59 in 2022
- The 56th orbital launch attempt from Cape Canaveral in 2022
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