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SpaceX launches 51 Starlink satellites and a space tug to orbit

SpaceX sent a space tug aloft along with another big batch of its Starlink internet satellites on Sunday night (Sept. 4) — and landed a rocket on a ship at sea as well.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off Sunday from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on the east coast of Florida, carrying 51 Starlink internet satellites to orbit. 

Also on board with Starlink Group 4-20 was Sherpa-LTC2, a space tug provided by Seattle-based company Spaceflight. The tug is carrying a payload for Boeing's Varuna Technology Demonstration Mission (Varuna-TDM), which "aims to test V-band communications for a proposed constellation of 147 non-geostationary broadband satellites," according to SpaceNews (opens in new tab).

The first Sherpa-LTC orbital transfer vehicle was removed from a January 2022 SpaceX launch opportunity due to a propellant leak, SpaceNews added.

Related: SpaceX's Starlink megaconstellation launches in photos

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches 51 Starlink internet satellites and the Sherpa-LTC2 space tug from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on Sept. 4, 2022. (Image credit: SpaceX)
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Sunday's flight plan called for SpaceX to bring the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket back to Earth for a soft touchdown on the droneship Just Read the Instructions, which was stationed in the Atlantic Ocean. The landing — the seventh for this particular booster — occurred as planned, about 8.5 minutes after launch.

Sherpa-LTC2 deployed from the Falcon 9's upper stage about 49 minutes after liftoff, and the Starlinks followed suit 23 minutes after that, SpaceX confirmed via Twitter (opens in new tab).

SpaceX has already sent more than 3,000 Starlink satellites into orbit, in an effort to create a huge constellation for broadband service targeted for remote areas. SpaceX has launched more than 25 Starlink-centric missions in 2022 already.

Sunday's launch was SpaceX's 40th of the year and continued to add to the Starlink megaconstellation. SpaceX has approval to launch 12,000 Starlink satellites and has asked an international regulator to give the thumbs-up to an additional 30,000.

In late August, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk announced plans to beam connectivity directly to smartphones using Starlink, in conjunction with T-Mobile. Another deal announced Tuesday (Aug. 30) will see Starlink service beamed to Royal Caribbean cruise ships.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.