SpaceX successfully launched a Falcon 9 rocket for a record 11th time Saturday, sending a new stack of Starlink satellites into orbit from California in a predawn lift-off. The previously flown Falcon 9 rocket blasted off at 7:41 a.m. from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Space Force Station in California, carrying a stack of 52 Starlink satellites.
Approximately about nine minutes after lift-off, the rocket's first stage returned to Earth and touched down on the deck of SpaceX's most prolific drone ship, "Of Course I Still Love You," marking the company's 98th successful landing. With its record 11th flight in the books, the Falcon 9 booster is SpaceX's most-flown rocket yet.
The US space company launched its Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Later, its first stage successfully landed on the Of Course I Still Love You drone ship. "Deployment of 52 Starlink satellites confirmed," SpaceX tweeted. The Starlink project seeks to provide affordable access to broadband internet connections across the world.
During a live launch of broadcast Youmei Zhou, a propulsion engineer for SpaceX announced that "we did just have a successful landing first stage landing."
On December 21, SpaceX is scheduled to launch another Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon cargo ship to the International Space Station for NASA from the agency's Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. The early morning lift-off is one for the record books as it marks the 29th Falcon 9 mission for SpaceX so far in 2021, further solidifying a new company record for the most number of rocket launches in a year. (That record was previously set in 2020, with SpaceX launching 26 Falcon 9 rockets.)
If all goes as planned, the company could launch a total of 31 Falcon 9 missions this year, as there are two more launches on the calendar, which will both lift off from Florida. The first of those missions will launch a communications satellite called Turksat 5B less than 19 hours after the Starlink mission sailed into orbit — a new company record. Lift-off is set for 10:58 p.m., from a pad at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
More Starlinks found in orbit
SpaceX's efforts to expand and upgrade its burgeoning Starlink internet constellation. This is the fourth flight to carry its newly upgraded Starlink internet satellites, as the company recently equipped each of the flat-panelled satellites with the ability to communicate with each other via laser links. This will increase efficiency and reduce the constellation's reliance on ground stations down here on Earth, company officials have said.
During the launch, it brings the total number of Starlink satellites launched up to 1,944 since May 2019. It also has an unusual orbit, which will hug the coast of California as the satellites are eventually expected to reach a parking spot that's a bit more centralized. (Typically, launches from California target a more polar trajectory.)
It has five orbital shells designed to be filled with roughly 4,400 Starlink internet satellites. These shells will be located at various altitudes above the planet, between 335 and 348 miles. Of the recent Starlink missions to launch, two payloads have been deposited into the 53.2-degree inclination and one into the 70-degree slot. That launch blasted off from California in Sept. Saturday's mission will fill another spot in the 53.2-degree orbit, marking a switch to a non-polar orbit for a California payload.
SpaceX is aiming to use its Starlink mega constellation to connect people around the globe to the internet, particularly those in rural and remote areas who have little-to-no connectivity. Company officials have said that the program now serves more than 100,000 subscribers in 20 countries and is still growing.
The Falcon 9's record launches no. 11
This rocket featured in Saturday's mission is one of the oldest in SpaceX's fleet. Dubbed B1051 by SpaceX, the booster is now the most flown rocket, with 11 launches and landings under its belt. Its counterpart, B1049, is the only other rocket with 10 flights. (Additionally, SpaceX has two other boosters that have successfully flown 9 times.)
B1051 was first introduced in March 2019 as part of the Demo-1 mission, which launched SpaceX's first Crew Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station as part of an unscrewed demonstration mission for NASA.
The Falcon debuted in 2018, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk speculated that each Falcon 9 would be capable of flying 10 times with very few refurbishments in between flights and as many as 100 times before retirement. In April, Elon Musk said that the company would continue to push Falcon 9 to its limits to see how many flights and how much performance the company can get out of each rocket before any kind of major refurbishments are required. SpaceX will be using its payloads like Starlink to do that.