SpaceX launched 53 of its Starlink internet satellites to orbit on its Falcon 9 rocket early Thursday morning (Feb. 2), marking the 200th flight of the workhorse rocket.
Powered by a first stage booster on its fifth mission, the rocket ascended smoothly through the early morning darkness and shed its first stage about 2 minutes and 30 seconds after lift-off. The first stage then executed a smooth landing, touching down on SpaceX's drone ship A Shortfall of Gravitas about 8 minutes and 45 seconds after lift-off. About an hour after launch, the second stage successfully released all 53 satellites.
The rocket previously launched another big batch of Starlink satellites (the company did not say which one, and there have been many); SpaceX's CRS-24 cargo mission to the International Space Station in December 2021; Eutelsat's Hotbird 13F telecom satellite in October 2022; and the OneWeb 1 flight in December 2022.
OneWeb 1 sent 40 internet satellites to orbit for mega-constellation operator OneWeb, which is seen as a rival to SpaceX's Starlink. The London-based company signed launch contracts with SpaceX and the commercial arm of India's national space agency after its deal to fly on Russian-built Soyuz rockets fell apart last year in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
SpaceX has now launched two missions for OneWeb; the second lifted off on Jan. 9.
Thursday's launch was the fourth this year that SpaceX devoted to Starlink, the company's huge and ever-growing constellation of broadband satellites.
SpaceX has launched more than 3,800 Starlink satellites to date. But the company has permission to loft 12,000 of the internet craft, and it has applied for approval to deploy an additional 30,000 Starlink satellites on top of that.
All Starlink satellites to date have flown aboard Falcon 9 rockets, but that could change soon. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has said that the company will rely primarily on its huge Starship vehicle to loft the larger next-generation Starlink 2.0 spacecraft.
Starship remains in development, but it could make its debut orbital test flight soon, perhaps by the end of February.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.