SpaceX rocket launches Starlink fleet and 2 small satellites, sticks landing at sea

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched a new fleet of Starlink internet satellites into orbit alongside two rideshare satellites Saturday evening (May 15), before sticking a stunning landing at sea.

The veteran Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center here in Florida at 6:56 p.m. EDT (2056 GMT), marking the company's 15th launch of the year. It also marked the eighth flight for this particular Falcon 9.

Related: SpaceX's Starlink satellite megaconstellation launches in photos

The successful liftoff marked the third time SpaceX launched one of its 229-foot-tall (70 meters) workhorse Falcon 9 rockets within as many weeks, as the company works to expand its burgeoning broadband constellation. 

Approximately nine minutes after liftoff, the rocket's first stage returned to Earth, touching down on SpaceX's drone ship "Of Course I Still Love You," for a 8th successful landing. A camera aboard the rocket stage captured spectacular video of the entire descent back to Earth.

It was a windy day on the space coast but blue skies over the launch pad made for quite the show. Thanks to the few scattered clouds hanging in the sky, the roar of the Falcon seemed louder as it climbed to orbit to this observer. 

SpaceX has been taking advantage of its fleet of flight-proven boosters, as all of its missions so far in 2021 have flown on a reused rocket, with 12 of those missions carrying Starlink satellites. 

Today's flight, called Starlink 27, is a bit unique in that SpaceX is sharing the payload fairing with paying customers. Tucked alongside a stack of 52 Starlink satellites are two additional passengers: a nanosatellite for Tyvak and a radar satellite for Capella Space. 

Those two satellites will deploy prior to the stack of SpaceX's own. 

This is the second of three launches that are scheduled today as Rocket Lab attempted to launch its 20th mission, called Running Out of Toes from Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand at 7:11 a.m. EDT (1111 GMT). An anomaly during the Electron's second-stage ignition and all the satellites on board were lost. Rocket Lab is working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to determine exactly what happened. 

Following SpaceX's on-time liftoff, NASA is planning to launch a small sounding rocket out of Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. 

That rocket, a Black Brant XII sounding rocket, will blast off at 8:03 p.m. EDT (0003 GMT), carrying a payload called KiNet-X. The flight could produce some dazzling sights for onlookers along the East Coast and Bermuda. Here's how you can watch that live online, starting at 7:40 p.m. EDT (2340 GMT).

NASA has a 40-minute window to launch the mission, which has been delayed several times. The experiment is designed to explore energy transport in space. The mission will study how energy and momentum are transported between areas of space that are magnetically connected. 

 A growing constellation 

SpaceX's 52 Starlink internet satellites sit in a stack over a brilliant blue Earth awaiting deployment after launching into orbit on the Starlink 27 mission May 15, 2021. (Image credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX's Starlink megaconstellation was created in order to provide internet coverage to the world while serving as a means to fund its deep space ambitions. To that end, company engineers designed a fleet of flat-paneled broadband satellites to fly over the Earth, beaming down internet coverage to users who can access the service via a compact user terminal. 

The company is targeting users in remote or rural areas who currently have little-to-no internet connectivity, but users all around the globe can subscribe to the service. 

With Saturday's successful launch, SpaceX has lofted more than 1,600 Starlink satellites into orbit, which goes beyond the company's initial quota of 1,440. The company has official approval for thousands more and is expected to roll out full commercial service later this year.

Currently, Starlink is still in its beta-testing phase with users around the world putting the service through its paces. The company has also opened up its website to begin taking preorders and says that so far more than 500,000 users have signed up. 

Starlink review (hands-on): How good is Elon Musk's satellite internet service?

 Fly, fly again 

This video still shows the view from SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket booster after landing on the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You in the Atlantic Ocean to cap its eight mission on May 15, 2015. (Image credit: SpaceX)

The booster used in Saturday's launch, called B1058, is one of SpaceX's frequent fliers. The veteran launcher now has eight launches and landings under its belt as the company continues to push its Falcon 9 rockets to the limit. 

This frequent flyer, adorned with NASA's iconic worm logo, made its debut in May 2020 with the launch of two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station on the Demo-2 test flight. The booster was SpaceX's first to be emblazoned with the retro-looking NASA logo. The once bright red logo is now almost black following its eight trips to space and back. 

After B1058 made history with the first astronaut mission to launch from Florida since the end of the shuttle program in 2011, the booster also launched a communications satellite for South Korea's military; Transporter-1, the largest payload of small satellites ever delivered to orbit; an upgraded cargo Dragon capsule; and three different Starlink missions. 

SpaceX has been using its previously flown boosters with the most miles to transport its own satellites into space. That way the company can push its fleet of Falcon's to the limit while also learning as much about the wear-and-tear each vehicle receives during launch. 

This is the 119th overall flight for Falcon 9, and the 65th flight of a refurbished booster. In fact, every single SpaceX launch so far in 2021 has been on a flight-proven rocket. 

In 2018, SpaceX debuted the rocket we see today, a version of Falcon 9 known as Block 5. This more capable Falcon 9 has ushered in an era of rapid reusability for the company, enabling SpaceX to launch more rockets than ever before. 

Three years ago, SpaceX CEO and Founder, Elon Musk, told reporters that the company expected each Falcon 9 to fly 10 times with few refurbishments in between flights, and as many as 100 times before retirement. 

SpaceX recently achieved that milestone with another booster — B1051. That launcher was the first to reach 10 flights and is not stopping any time soon. According to Musk, 10 flights is not a hard limit or magic number. As the company continues to refine its refurbishment process, it will continue to push each Falcon to its breaking point, he said.

Having a fleet of flight-proven rockets at its disposal allows SpaceX to keep up with its rapid launch cadence. However, SpaceX chooses to fly its own payload on boosters with a high flight count, saving its newer boosters for paying customers. 

Recently, both NASA and the U.S. Space Force recently granted the company approval to fly their payloads on reused rockets, with SpaceX flying its first crew of astronauts on a reused rocket on April 23. That mission was a success and later this summer, SpaceX will fly an upgraded GPS satellite for the U.S. Space Force on a reused rocket as well. 

To facilitate reuse, SpaceX outfitted its Falcon 9 with some upgrades previous versions did not have, including a more robust thermal protection system, a more durable interstage (the part that connects the rocket's first stage to the upper stage), titanium grid fins and more powerful engines. These key enhancements, along with two drone ships on the same coast, have enabled SpaceX to launch and land more rockets. 

SpaceX also recently added a new boat to its fleet of recovery vessels. Named the Shelia Bordelon, will be retrieving the fairings after they fall back to Earth with the help of its onboard crane. The boat will haul the fairings back to port, where they will likely fly again soon. 

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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.