SpaceX Launches 60 Starlink Satellites, Nails Rocket Landing in Record-Breaking Flight

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX kicked off 2020 with the record-breaking launch of its third batch of Starlink satellites. Sixty of the internet-beaming satellites launched atop a used Falcon 9 booster on Monday, Jan. 6. 

The sooty Falcon 9 rocket roared to life at 9:19 p.m. EST (0219 GMT Tuesday), lifting off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station here in Florida. Its nine Merlin 1D engines lit up the night sky above the space coast as it climbed towards orbit. 

"Liftoff! Go, Starlink, go, Falcon [on the] Space Force inaugural launch," a SpaceX launch commentator said. The mission was the first launch under the watch of the newly minted U.S. Space Force, a military branch that President Donald Trump signed into law last month.

The satellites rode into space atop a reused Falcon 9 first stage, marking the second time the company has flown a booster four times. The star of this mission, dubbed B1049.4 by SpaceX, previously lofted the first batch of Starlink satellites as well as the Iridium-8 and Telstar 18 VANTAGE missions. 

Related: How to See the Starlink-2 Satellites in the Night Sky
Watch SpaceX's Starlink-2 Falcon 9 Rocket Landing!

Following the successful launch, the rocket's first stage gently touched down on a SpaceX's drone ship landing platform "Of Course I Still Love You" in the Atlantic Ocean, marking the company's 48th booster recovery.

SpaceX designed its souped up Falcon 9 rocket to fly as many as 10 times with only light refurbishments in between. The company has yet to fly a booster five times, but with four successful flights under this booster's belt, it's likely that it could fly again in the future.

Building a constellation

The launch is part of the private spaceflight company's plan to create a constellation of small broadband satellites, each weighing slightly more than 485 lbs. (220 kilograms), that will provide internet coverage to the world below. With this launch, it brings SpaceX's burgeoning constellation up to 180 satellites, making it the largest satellite fleet in orbit. 

SpaceX is not the one aerospace company with plans of connecting the globe. OneWeb launched its first set of six satellites in 2019, but SpaceX (with its own rockets) has quickly amassed a sizable constellation. 

Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and founder, has said the company will need at least 400 satellites in orbit to provide minimal coverage, and at least 800 to provide moderate coverage. That coverage could begin sometime this year, with it rolling out first in portions of the U.S. and Canada.

Related: SpaceX's 1st Starlink Megaconstellation Launch in Photos!

How it works

The goal of SpaceX's Starlink project is to provide constant high-speed internet access to users around the world. Currently, we rely on wireless cell towers or cables routed into our homes and offices to access the internet. As a result, rural and remote areas are often left without access. SpaceX wants to change that. 

Traditional satellite internet providers beam internet coverage down from their satellites perched high above the Earth, in what's known as geostationary orbit (typically 22,000 miles, or 35,000 kilometers up). The signal has to travel such a long distance, which results in slow connections speeds.

By operating at a lower altitude SpaceX hopes to cut down on this issue and provide reliable coverage at an affordable price. 

Preserving dark skies

Not everyone is thrilled about the idea of SpaceX's new mega-constellation. Astronomers have voiced concerns that the satellites could interfere with crucial scientific observations

SpaceX's Starlink satellites stand out against the night sky. Almost immediately following the first launch, skywatchers noted that the tiny satellites are incredibly bright — even more so than the average satellite. That observation made scientists nervous about how the Starlink constellation could interfere with their work. 

Astronomers rely on ground-based telescopes to take long-exposure images of astronomical objects they want to study. When something bright passed in front of the telescope's field of view, it can obscure the image. 

Following the complaints, Musk and SpaceX said they would look into reducing the brightness of the satellites. To that end, the company says one of the satellites launching tonight will be unique. One side of it will be coated in a special material that will make it appear darker in orbit. 

If this test goes well, future versions of the satellites could be coated in the same material. 

Fairing recovery

One of SpaceX's fairing catcher boats, GO Ms. Tree, attempted to catch a fairing half in its giant outstretched net Monday night, but failed to snag it, SpaceX officials said. 

"We didn't catch it this time. We got really close," SpaceX Starlink satellite engineer Laurel Lyons said during live commentary. "But we're going to keep on trying again."

Payload fairings (also known as the rocket's nose cone) are designed to protect the payload during launch. Each fairing is equipped with its own navigation system that allows it to glide gently back to Earth. The Falcon 9’s payload fairing come in two halves that are jettisoned once the rocket reaches space. 

With each piece fetching roughly $3 million, SpaceX hopes to save some money by reusing them on future flights. To date, GO Ms. Tree (the vessel formerly known as Mr. Steven) has made two successful catches. 

The company acquired a second vessel in order to eventually scoop up both fairing pieces. That ship, dubbed GO Ms. Chief, is sidelined tonight as crews work on necessary repairs due to damage sustained from its last mission. 

Follow Amy Thompson on Twitter @astrogingersnap. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

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Amy Thompson
Contributing Writer

Amy Thompson is a Florida-based space and science journalist, who joined as a contributing writer in 2015. She's passionate about all things space and is a huge science and science-fiction geek. Star Wars is her favorite fandom, with that sassy little droid, R2D2 being her favorite. She studied science at the University of Florida, earning a degree in microbiology. Her work has also been published in Newsweek, VICE, Smithsonian, and many more. Now she chases rockets, writing about launches, commercial space, space station science, and everything in between.

  • rod
    Admin said:
    A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched 60 Star broadband internet satellites into orbit and landed back on Earth, making SpaceX the operator of a record-breaking 180 satellites in orbit today.

    SpaceX Launches 60 Star Satellites, Nails Rocket Landing in Record-Breaking Flight : Read more

    There are other views of launching so many satellites too. Astronomers say SpaceX's satellites are too bright in the sky. Friday's launch will try to fix that
  • jdarpinian
    You can see how bright the satellites are for yourself as they pass over your location. Check viewing times here:
  • Lucas_aguilar
    If I'm not wrong some of the satellites of the first batch were deorbited already, so they don't operate a total of 180
  • Emil
    "Less visible" is not good enough. The satellites will not be interfering with stargazing or with visual astronomy but they could ruin the astrophotography. Even the dimmest satellite spoils the exposure if in the frame. The question is not how visible they are but how many of them are out there. If astronomers can't find 1 or 2 min periods without a satellite crossing the field of the telescope then the astrophotography is no more. Having 12,000 evenly distributed satellites means that there will be at least one on every 1.85 degrees what is about the half of the Andromeda galaxy or also 4 moon diameters. What to say about having 42,000 of them. I am not SpaceX and mission to Mars die hard supporter anymore. At least not on that cost.
  • Reza Ganjavi
    SpaceX is a disaster in making: DNA damage, Cancer, ignoring biological impact proven through thousands of studies , which a crooked wireless ignores.
  • Star tunes
    I think i just saw the spaceX satellites over southeastern Wisconsin....
  • Star tunes
    Admin said:
    A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched 60 Star broadband internet satellites into orbit and landed back on Earth, making SpaceX the operator of a record-breaking 180 satellites in orbit today.

    SpaceX Launches 60 Star Satellites, Nails Rocket Landing in Record-Breaking Flight : Read more
    I think i just saw the SpaceX satellites over Southeastern Wisconsin