SpaceX follows Crew Dragon Launch Scrub with successful Starlink flight

While SpaceX worked to fix an issue that thwarted an attempt to launch a crew of four to the International Space Station, on Monday SpaceX pushed for the launch of another Falcon 9 rocket carrying 21 next-generation Starlink internet satellites.

The last-minute scrubbing of a Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon capsule at Kennedy Space Center was caused by problems with the rocket’s engine first-stage ignition system. To allow time to fix the problem and to avoid expected inclement weather on Tuesday, another attempt to get the Crew Dragon fliers on their way has been pushed back to Thursday.

But that didn’t affect work at the nearby Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, where another SpaceX team counted down to the launch of another Falcon 9 from Pad 40. This time, after a delay due to high levels of electrified solar wind particles, the countdown rolls smoothly to zero at 6:13 p.m. EST.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket thunders away from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, which carries 21 second-generation Starlink internet satellites. The California rocket builder has now deployed more than 4,000 broadband relay stations, with thousands more to come. William Harwood/CBS News

The first stage sped away to the southeast a few minutes before sunset, spectacularly propelling the craft out of the dense lower atmosphere before crashing and landing on an offshore drone ship.

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The second stage continued to climb into orbit and an hour after launch, the 21 Starlinks were cleared to fly alone in a 230 mile high orbit that will carry them 43 degrees on either side of the equator. In this orbit, the satellites will fly over all points as far north as Boston and south to New Zealand.

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The Starlink system was designed to provide customers anywhere in the world with relatively high-speed internet using thousands of broadband relay stations in multiple low-altitude orbits. The satellites maintain links with customers by using laser links to pass streams of data from one to the other as they fly overhead.

Including Monday’s launch, SpaceX has now launched 4,002 Starlinks, “offering high-speed internet in more than a million locations around the world, most of which are homes,” the company said in an online summary.

“Starlink continues to grow rapidly, and SpaceX has struggled to keep up with increasing demand for connectivity around the world, particularly in areas where previously there were few or no broadband connectivity options.”

To meet this demand, the company is now building two versions of a larger, more powerful Starlink satellite. One to fly on the company’s planned Super Heavy/Starship rocket and a slightly smaller variant to be airborne by the less powerful Falcon 9.

The Version 2, or V2, satellites launched on Falcon 9 “are a bit smaller, so we affectionately refer to them as ‘V2 Mini’ satellites,” SpaceX said. “But don’t let the name fool you, a V2 mini-satellite has four times the capacity to serve users compared to its previous counterparts.”

Twenty-one second generation “V2 Mini” Starlink satellites are shown stacked for launch before being encapsulated in a Falcon 9 nose cone fairing. The satellites are larger and more powerful than the models launched so far. SpaceX

SpaceX is one of several companies building space-based internet delivery systems and has raised concerns about the possibility of malfunctions and collisions with debris threatening other spacecraft.

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But SpaceX says its satellites are designed to operate in relatively low orbits that allow atmospheric drag to quickly knock spacecraft out of orbit at the end of their lives or in the event of a malfunction disabling, minimizing the chance of collisions .

The satellites can automatically change course to avoid potential close encounters with other spacecraft or debris, and the company is releasing detailed tracking data to provide detailed situational awareness to governments and other satellite operators.

A major concern with Starlinks and other proposed “mega-constellations” of space-based Internet relay stations is their reflectivity and their potential impact on ground-based optical and radio telescopes.

SpaceX said it is actively working with the astronomical community to develop mitigation measures, including advanced coatings and operational procedures, aimed at minimizing the reflectivity of the V2 satellites.

“Although our V2 mini satellites are larger than previous versions, we still expect them to be just as dim or dimmer once the full range of mitigation measures are implemented and the satellites reach operational orbit,” SpaceX said.

“However, we would like to emphasize that although brightness component measurements, ground modeling and analysis show effective brightness reductions, we will only see the full effectiveness of our efforts once observations of the in-orbit satellites have been made and data collected and analyzed.”

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