SpaceX launches 15 Starlink satellites to orbit, lands rocket at sea

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched 15 Starlink satellites toward orbit early Thursday (July 20) and came back down for a landing on a ship at sea.

The Falcon 9 lifted off from California's foggy Vandenberg Space Force Base on Thursday at 12:09 a.m. EDT (0409 GMT; 9:09 p.m. on July 19 local California time) after a one-day delay. 

The launch was originally scheduled to occur early Wednesday (July 19), but SpaceX aborted that try with five seconds left in the countdown after receiving an alert from the rocket's upper stage.

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The first stage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket comes down for a landing on a ship at sea after a launch on July 20, 2023.  (Image credit: SpaceX)

The Falcon 9 got off the ground with no issues on Thursday morning, and its first stage came back down to Earth as planned as well. The booster aced its vertical touchdown on the SpaceX droneship Of Course I Still Love You about 9.5 minutes after launch.

It was the 10th liftoff and landing for this booster, according to a SpaceX mission description. The record for a Falcon 9 first stage is 16, set on July 9 and tied on July 15.

The Falcon 9's upper stage, meanwhile, continued carrying the 15 Starlink spacecraft to low Earth orbit (LEO). The satellites will be deployed there about 15 minutes after launch, though it may take a while to get confirmation of this success, SpaceX's Zachary Luppen said during the launch webcast. 

Thursday's liftoff was SpaceX's 48th orbital mission of the year, Luppen added.

Starlink is SpaceX's constellation of broadband satellites, which currently consists of 4,450 operational spacecraft in LEO, according to astrophysicist and satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell.

That number will continue to rise far into the future. SpaceX has permission to loft 12,000 Starlink satellites and has applied for approval to deploy another 30,000 on top of that.

Editor's note: This story was updated at 3 p.m. ET on July 19 with the new target launch time of 12:09 a.m. ET on July 20. It was updated again at 12:30 a.m. ET on July 20 with news of successful launch and rocket landing.

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.