Update for 8:40 p.m. EST on March 9: SpaceX is now targeting Thursday, March 11 at 3:13 a.m. EST for this Starlink launch, citing a desire to perform more prelaunch checks.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX is gearing up to launch its second Starlink mission of the month tonight (March 9) as it expands its growing internet satellite megaconstellation, and you can watch the action live online.
The private spaceflight company is planning to fly one of its Falcon 9 rockets for a sixth time for the Starlink mission. The two-stage launcher will blast off from Space Launch Complex 40 here at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 9:58 p.m. EST (0258 March 10 GMT).
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SpaceX is continuing its rapid launch pace, which was set last year when the company launched a record 26 times. Tonight's flight marks the company's seventh launch of 2021, with at least one more Starlink mission planned for March.
Forecasters with the U.S. Space Force's 45th Weather Squadron reported that the launch weather looks promising for Tuesday night's liftoff, with a 90% chance of favorable weather. The only slight concerns being liftoff winds and cumulus clouds.
If needed, there is a backup attempt on Wednesday, with weather forecasts dipping slightly to and 80% of good launch conditions.
Beautiful weather is also predicted down range, which is good news for one of SpaceX’s two drone ships — "Just Read the Instructions" — which hopes to catch the booster as it returns to Earth. If successful, the landing will mark the 76th recovery for SpaceX since the company landed its first booster in 2015. And will mark the second catch in a row for SpaceX after it lost a booster in February.
SpaceX relies heavily on its fleet of veteran rockets, which have enabled SpaceX to keep up with its launch ambitions. However, company officials have stressed that while booster recovery is beneficial, the main goal of each mission is to successfully deliver the payload to space.
The booster doing the lifting in this mission is a five-time flier, set to make its sixth launch and landing attempt. Dubbed B1058, the first stage made its debut by launching two astronauts to the International Space Station in May of 2020.
Following that historic mission, it ferried a communications satellite for South Korea's military, a cargo dragon spacecraft full of research and supplies for the space station, the most satellites ever launched on a single mission (Transporter-1), and today's flight will be its second Starlink payload.
The flight also marks one of the shortest turnaround times between booster flights for SpaceX. B1058 last flew on Jan. 24, and will blast off again from the same launch pad just 45 days later — a record for a sixth reflight of a booster. (The previous record was 59 days.)
During a news conference on the upcoming Crew-2 mission, which is set to launch on April 22, SpaceX's Benji Reed briefly discussed the refurbishment process. "We learn something about reuse after every mission," he said. That learning process has helped the company refine its procedures and reduce times in between flights.
This particular flight, Starlink 20, is the 21st set of internet-beaming satellites that SpaceX has delivered to space, including a set of initial prototypes in 2019. SpaceX's initial constellation will contain 1,440 satellites, and the company is well on its way to achieving that milestone.
But SpaceX is not stopping there. The company was granted permission to launch up to 30,000 satellites, with the option for more at a later time.
The stack of 60 broadband satellites will join the fleet already in orbit, bringing the total number launched over 1,200. (That number includes prototypes of the satellites that are no longer in service.) With SpaceX quickly filling its initial constellation, the company is moving closer to providing commercial internet service with the Starlink network. As such, it is planning a full commercial rollout later this year.
That roll out comes after an extensive beta testing program that included both employees and the public. The "better than nothing" beta testing program kicked off in 2019 and has already provided thousands of users connectivity.
Some of those users include people in remote areas that currently have little-to-no internet service, such as the Pikangikum tribe in Canada. Starlink terminals were delivered to the reservation in late November, and have better access to education, healthcare service as well as contact with friends and family.
Students in Wise County, Virginia are also better connected now, thanks to Starlink terminals arriving earlier this year. Roughly 40% of families in the area lack access to the internet which made learning all the more difficult during the pandemic. The county board of supervisors worked with SpaceX to provide free internet service to at least 40 families, with the project expanding to more families at a later time.
In advance of an official rollout, the company recently opened up its website for preorders, allowing a limited number of users per area. If interested, potential customers can sign up via the company's Starlink website and secure service by putting down a deposit. The website does say that it could take several months for the service to become active.
SpaceX’s dynamic fairing-catching duo, GO Ms Tree and GO Ms Chief are still sidelined, undergoing maintenance in Port Canaveral. As such, GO Searcher and GO Navigator have been dispatched to the planned recovery site.
The two boats, which typically support Dragan missions, are able to scoop the fairing pieces out of the water, enabling SpaceX to continue its plans to recover and reuse the fairing pieces. For this particular mission, both pieces have flown before. With any luck, they will live to fly again.
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