CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX will launch its first full stack of Starlink broadband satellites since May tonight (Sept. 13) and you can watch the action live online.
The private spaceflight company will launch a full stack of 60 Starlink satellites on one of its fleet leaders, a veteran Falcon 9 dubbed B1049. The frequent flier is scheduled to blast off from Space Launch Complex 4 at Vandenberg Space Force Station in California at 11:55 p.m. EDT (8:55 p.m. PDT or 0355 GMT on Sept. 14).
Monday's flight is the 22nd Falcon 9 mission for SpaceX so far in 2021. In addition, the flight marks the first Starlink launch since May; SpaceX paused launches for about four months in order to equip the satellites with laser crosslinks that allow Starlink satellites to communicate with each other, reducing the constellation's reliance on Earth, according to SpaceX.
The mission, called Starlink 29, is the company's first operational Starlink flight from its West Coast launch facility and will bring the total number of SpaceX broadband satellites launched up to 1,797.
SpaceX created its Starlink program in hopes of providing high-speed internet access to users around the world, and as a means to help fund its deep-space ambitions. The service is targeted to users in rural or remote areas that have little to no connectivity, although anyone can subscribe to it.
The rocket doing the lifting is one of the oldest members of SpaceX's fleet, a booster designated B1049. Poised to make its 10th flight, the rocket's previous payloads have included seven other Starlink stacks, a Canadian communications satellite and a stack of 10 Iridium NEXT telecommunications satellites.
Following its second cross-country trek from SpaceX's Florida launch pad to its California outpost, the booster is now ready to loft its 10th payload: a full stack of Starlink satellites. This flight will mark the second time one of SpaceX's first stage boosters have reached 10 flights. The first rocket to reach that milestone was booster B1051, when it carried a different stack of Starlink satellites into orbit on May 9. That flight was one for the history books as 10 flights with one booster was always a reusability target for SpaceX.
The current version of Falcon 9 flying today (called Block 5) first debuted in 2018, and helped SpaceX usher in an era of rapid reusability. Block 5 boasts a series of upgrades, including a more robust thermal protections system, titanium grid fins and a more durable interstage (the part of the rocket that connects the first stage to the second stage).
When Block 5 debuted, SpaceX announced that each one would be capable of flying at least 10 times, with few refurbishments in between. As the company recovered more rockets and refined its post-flight processing, the company realized that 10 flights was more a guideline than a hard limit and that a sizeable number of boosters can surpass that milestone.
By flying a second rocket 10 times, SpaceX will have even more data on Falcon 9 and how it holds up over multiple flights to better refine booster recovery efforts.
To ensure that B1049 is ready for its milestone flight this evening, SpaceX rolled the rocket out to the pad on Sept. 2 and fired up the Falcon's nine Merlin 1D engines as part of a pre-launch test. The rocket was held down on the pad while its engines briefly fired up, allowing engineers to ensure the booster was working properly.
The static fire test is a common part of SpaceX's prelaunch procedures; however, the company has skipped this step for more than half of the Falcon 9 rockets launched so far this year. That could be because most of the rockets flown so far this year have flown many times. It could also be because SpaceX is trying to keep up a rapid launch pace, and having to do a static fire test before each one slows down the schedule.
But with a huge milestone on the horizon, SpaceX wanted to make sure that B1049's systems were all in order.
Monday's launch marks the 128th flight for SpaceX's 229-foot-tall (70 meters) Falcon 9 booster, and if all goes as planned, it will also be the 91st recovery of a Falcon 9 first stage booster since the company landed its first one in December 2015.
SpaceX plans to land B1049 on the deck of one of its massive drone ships, named "Of Course I Still Love You," which the company moved to the West Coast this summer. The ship was previously stationed in Florida, where it caught the majority of SpaceX's returning boosters.
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