SpaceX's 50th custom Starlink mission begins filling a new network layer - Spaceflight Now

SpaceX’s 50th custom Starlink mission begins filling a new network layer – Spaceflight Now

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket was launched into orbit from California using 46 Starlink satellites. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX launched the 50th mission assigned to the Starlink Internet network Sunday from the central coast of California, deploying 46 broadband relay nodes to begin filling a new polar-orbiting “shell” to fill gaps in the satellite constellation.

The 46 Starlink satellites blasted off from the misty Vandenberg Space Force Base, 140 miles (225 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles, atop a Falcon 9 rocket. The kerosene-fueled launcher took off from Space Launch Complex 4-East at 6:39:40 PM EST (9:39:40 PM; 0139:40 GMT on Monday).

Heading south from the military-owned spaceport, Falcon 9 climbed through a sea cloud layer and accelerated across the sound barrier in about a minute. The first stage turned off its nine Merlin engines and separated from the Falcon 9 upper stage, which ignited one engine to continue the journey into orbit.

The booster vehicle returned to Earth for a controlled landing and propulsion aboard an unmanned ship stationed a few hundred miles south of Vandenberg in the Pacific Ocean. The booster – known as tail number B1063 on SpaceX’s reusable fleet of rockets – completed its sixth flight into space on Sunday.

The upper stage reads its engine for a short second burn before releasing the 46 mission payloads more than an hour after takeoff.

46 satellites have been launched into polar orbit to join some 2,500 Starlink spacecraft already in space. With Sunday’s mission, SpaceX has launched 2,805 Starlink satellites so far, including prototypes and spacecraft that have already been removed from service.

Sunday’s launch marked SpaceX’s 50th mission with the primary mission of moving satellites into orbit for the Starlink network. In all, SpaceX has launched Starlink satellites or prototypes on 53 Falcon 9 flights, including three launches that included the Starlink spacecraft as secondary or co-payloads.

But the new satellites deployed on Sunday were the first to fly in a dedicated Starlink launch into polar orbit, beginning to build a new layer in the Starlink fleet.

Previous Starlink missions have been launched in orbits tilted to the equator at angles of 53.0, 53.2 and 70 degrees. The network architecture also includes two other layers in orbits tilted 97.6 degrees to the equator to provide continuous global Internet coverage.

One of those polar-orbital missiles, known as Group 3, was the target of a Sunday night mission. Pole-orbiting satellites will extend Starlink’s coverage above the poles and help fill in gaps in the rest of the constellation.

SpaceX began deploying Starlink satellites in 2019 and finished filling the shell at a tilt of 53.0 degrees, called Group 1, with 1,584 active satellites launched in May 2021. In September 2021, SpaceX launched the first batch of 51 70-degree Starlink satellites Degree. Tilt orbit on a Vandenberg Falcon 9 rocket. That orbital missile, which has not been launched since last September, will eventually contain 720 satellites.

SpaceX launched the first in Group 4 of the Starlink network, at an inclination of 53.2 degrees, in November 2021. It is now more than halfway complete with filling the 53.2 degree inclination structure, which will eventually amount to 1,584 satellites, the same number as Group 1.

Other Starlink missiles – Groups 3 and 5 with 348 and 172 satellites each – are placed in a polar orbit at an inclination of 97.6 degrees. Starlink 3-1 launch scheduled for Sunday.

All first-generation Starlink satellites will fly at altitudes between 335 and 354 miles (540-570 kilometers).

SpaceX has received regulatory approval from the Federal Communications Commission for nearly 12,000 Starlink satellites. The company’s initial focus is to launch 4,400 satellites in a series of Falcon 9 rocket flights. SpaceX’s next generation launcher, a giant rocket called Starship, will eventually be tasked with launching hundreds of Starlink satellites in a single mission.

Both Starlink satellites weigh more than a quarter of a ton and are built on SpaceX’s Starlink assembly line in Redmond, Washington. The spacecraft is equipped with laser links between satellites to facilitate data transmission in orbit, without the need to relay signals through ground stations, which come with geographic, and sometimes political, limitations. Laser crosslinks can also reduce latency in the Starlink network because signals need to travel a shorter distance.

On Sunday’s mission, a Falcon 9 rocket targeted the deployment of 46 Starlink satellites in a semicircular orbit between 191 and 199 miles (308 x 320 km) above Earth.

After separating from Falcon 9, the Starlink satellites were expected to disperse and extend solar panels to begin generating electricity to recharge their batteries. The satellites will go through an automated logout and activation sequence, then use krypton-fueled ion thrusters to raise their altitude to 348 miles (560 kilometers), where they will enter operational service in the Starlink network.

A view of a group of 46 Starlink satellites packed flat into orbit after launch on Sunday. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX said in May it has more than 400,000 subscribers to its Starlink Internet service, which is designed to provide high-speed connectivity and low latency anywhere in the world.

The company won approval from the Federal Communications Commission last month to begin offering Starlink connectivity to mobile customers. So far, Starlink’s services have focused on established customers, such as homes, businesses and schools.

SpaceX announced Thursday that it will offer Starlink Internet service to customers on boats, yachts, oil rigs and other users in the offshore market. Several airlines have tested or approved the use of an in-flight Starlink connection to provide onboard WiFi to passengers.

Sunday’s launch was the 29th flight of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket this year.

The upcoming SpaceX mission is scheduled to take off Thursday night from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A Falcon 9 rocket will launch a Dragon cargo ship on a commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station.

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