Editor's note: SpaceX has successfully launched its first Starlink mission of 2021. Read our full wrap story here.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX will launch its first batch of Starlink satellites in 2021 on Monday (Jan. 18) to expand the company's growing megaconstellation and you can watch the action live online.
The Hawthorne, California-based company will loft 60 Starlink internet satellites on its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket from NASA's historic Pad 39A here at Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 8:45 a.m. EDT (1422 GMT).
SpaceX already has one launch under its belt this year and is looking to ramp up the pace. 2020 was a banner year for the private spaceflight company, which included two different astronaut missions to the International Space Station — the first for a commercial company.
It was also the company's busiest launch year to date, with a record 26 flights, smashing the previous record of 18 set in 2018. This year SpaceX has even bigger ambitions, as the company plans to launch 40 rockets between its California and Florida launch sites.
Following liftoff on Monday, the Falcon 9's first stage is expected to land on SpaceX's drone ship, "Just Read the Instructions" in the Atlantic Ocean. (SpaceX’s main drone ship, "Of Course I Still Love You," is undergoing maintenance before it returns to service following a busy year.) If successful, the landing will mark the 72nd recovery of a first stage booster for the California-based rocket manufacturer.
The rocket featured in this launch will be another record-setting booster. Known as B1051, this flight proven booster will embark on its eighth flight — the first of SpaceX's fleet to do so. It will also mark one of SpaceX's shortest turnaround times between flights as this particular last flew just over a month ago.
To date, B1051 has carried an assortment of payloads, including an uncrewed Crew Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station as part of a 2019 flight test, followed by a trio of Earth-observing satellites for Canada as well as four different Starlink missions. Most recently, it carried a 15,432-lb. (7,000 kilograms) satellite into orbit for Sirius XM, that will beam down content to Sirius subscribers across the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean.
SpaceX created its Starlink internet program to connect users around the globe and provide reliable and affordable internet service, mainly to remote and rural areas. By using a small terminal (no larger than a laptop), users on the ground will be able to connect to the ever-growing network. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has said that the company needs to launch between 500 and 800 satellites in order to begin rolling out service.
To date, SpaceX has launched more than 1,000 of the internet-beaming satellites into orbit, in an effort to fill out its planned initial constellation of 1,440 spacecraft. SpaceX has already begun beta-testing its space-based internet service, and the initial testing phase has shown that the service is reliable.
The phase is going so well that SpaceX has even started to offer users in the U.K. to help in the beta-testing. The company received a license to start operating in the U.K. last year, thanks to local telecoms regulator Ofcom.
Monday's launch marks the 102nd flight overall for SpaceX’s workhorse two-stage Falcon 9 rocket, as well as the 51st reflight of a Falcon 9 rocket since the company began recovering boosters in 2015.
Over the past five years, the company has honed its recovery efforts, while continuing to prove Falcon 9’s reliability. Flying previously flown boosters has now become commonplace for SpaceX, and has allowed the company to launch its rockets at a record pace.
To date, SpaceX has successfully landed its first-stage boosters 71 times. Now that the company has two fully operational drone-ship landing platforms — "Of Course I Still Love You" and "Just Read the Instructions" — in Florida, it’s able to launch (and land) more rockets. The newer drone ship on the block, "Just Read the Instructions," is already at the recovery zone waiting for its turn to catch B1051 when it returns to Earth on Monday.
SpaceX is expected to continue its tradition of recovering the Falcon 9's payload fairing, or nose cone, on this flight. The company has two net-equipped boats — called GO Ms. Tree and GO Ms. Chief — that it uses to snag the fairings as they fall back to Earth in two pieces.
Each piece of the clamshell-like hardware, which cost approximately $6 million combined, is outfitted with software that navigates it to the recovery zone, and a parachute system that lets them gently land in the ocean or the outstretched net of GO Ms. Tree and GO Ms. Chief.
The boats are also able to scoop the fairings up out of the water as making a midair catch is tricky and dependent upon several factors, like weather and winds. Typically the team decides whether it will catch or scoop the day of launch. And those recovery efforts take place roughly 45 minutes after liftoff.
Currently, weather is 70% go for the launch opportunity on Monday, with the only weather concerns being the potential for cumulus clouds over the launch site. There is a backup launch time on Tuesday if need be. The launch weather that day looks even better, with a 90% chance of favorable launch conditions.
If everything goes as planned, this could mark the first of two SpaceX launches from Florida this week. The Hawthorne, California based company is planning to launch a rideshare mission on Thursday (Jan. 21). And could cap off the month with another Starlink mission.
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