SpaceX carried out its milestone 200th orbital mission on Friday (Dec. 16), sending up a pair of powerful new communications satellites.
The first stage, having done its job, came back down and landed safely on a SpaceX drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean just under nine minutes after liftoff. It was the reusable booster's eighth touchdown overall.
The second stage, meanwhile, continued carrying the O3b mPower 1 and 2 satellites toward their intended medium Earth orbits (MEO). The satellites were deployed on schedule about two hours after launch.
O3b mPower 1 and 2 are owned and operated by SES, a Luxembourgish-French satellite telecommunications network company. The pair of spacecraft are the first of a planned constellation of an initial 11 high-throughput and low-latency satellites to provide multiple terabits of global broadband connectivity from MEO.
Each satellite is based on a Boeing BSS-702X satellite bus and features phased array antennas that can provide up to 5,000 spot beams to distribute hundreds of gigabits of capacity to users on the ground. SES plans to launch six more O3b mPower satellites in 2023 and three in 2024.
The mission marked SpaceX’s 200th orbital launch overall. These began with the Falcon 1, which flew five times between 2006 and 2009, leading to the first liftoff of the Falcon 9 on June 4, 2010. The Falcon 9 first stage is powered by nine Merlin engines, a fact contributing to the rocket's name. The second stage uses a single, vacuum-optimized Merlin for completing the journey to orbit.
The launch rate of the Falcon 9 has increased dramatically over the years as the rocket has proven its reliability, versatility and reusability, while also evolving into its final Block 5 version. The rocket has now flown 191 missions, including a record 57 in 2022 alone.
Four SpaceX orbital missions have been flown by the powerful Falcon Heavy, which employs three modified Falcon 9 first stages.
There will be little time for SpaceX to celebrate the 200-mission milestone. The company is scheduled to launch a big batch of its Starlink broadband satellites from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday (Dec. 17).
Editor's note: This story was updated at 8:30 p.m. EST on Dec. 16 with news of successful satellite deployment.