SpaceX launches 1st batch of 'direct to cell' Starlink satellites (video)

SpaceX launched another batch of its Starlink internet satellites on Tuesday (Jan. 2), on its first mission of 2024.

A Falcon 9 rocket topped with 21 Starlink craft lifted off from California's Vandenberg Space Force Base at 10:44 p.m. EST (0313 GMT on Jan. 3; 7:44 p.m. local California time). And some of those satellites were trailblazers.

"This launch will include the first six Starlink satellites with Direct to Cell capabilities that will enable mobile network operators around the world to provide seamless global access to texting, calling, and browsing wherever you may be on land, lakes, or coastal waters," SpaceX wrote in a mission description.

Related: SpaceX Starlink satellites to beam service straight to smartphones

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches 21 Starlink satellites, including the first six Starlink satellites with Direct to Cell capabilities, from Complex 4 East (SLC-4E) at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024. (Image credit: SpaceX via X)

As planned, the Falcon 9's first stage came back to Earth for a vertical landing about 8.5 minutes after launch. It touched down on the droneship "Of Course I Still Love You," which was stationed in the Pacific Ocean off the California coast.

It was the first launch and landing for this particular booster, according to the SpaceX mission description. 

The 21 Starlink satellites, meanwhile, were scheduled to deploy from the Falcon 9's upper stage into low Earth orbit about 62.5 minutes after liftoff.

a rocket stage lands on an ocean-based droneship

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket's first stage lands on the droneship "Of Course I Still Love You" off the coast of California on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024. (Image credit: SpaceX via X)

This was the first launch of 2024 for SpaceX. The company set a record last year with 96 orbital missions, plus two test flights of its giant, next-generation Starship Mars rocket.

Most of 2023's launch action was devoted to building out Starlink, SpaceX's broadband megaconstellation. The network currently consists of more than 5,100 active satellites and, as Saturday's planned liftoff shows, it's growing all the time.

Tuesday's liftoff was originally scheduled to occur in mid December but was delayed multiple times.

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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.