Update for 9 am ET: SpaceX has successfully launched and landed a Falcon 9 rocket for a record 11th time with its Starlink mission on Dec. 18, 2021 that delivered 52 new internet satellites into orbit. Read our full story and video recap.
SpaceX will launch its second stack of Starlink satellites from the West Coast early Saturday morning (Dec. 18), and you can watch the action live online.
The private spaceflight company will launch a stack of 52 Starlink satellites on one of its previously flown Falcon 9 rockets. The mission is set to blast off at 7:41 a.m. EST (1241 GMT, 4:41 a.m. local time) from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Space Force Station in California. SpaceX pushed the launch back 3 hours (from a 4:24 a.m. EST target late Friday.
You can watch the launch live in the window above and on the Space.com homepage, courtesy of SpaceX. Live coverage will begin about 15 minutes before liftoff. You can also watch the launch directly via SpaceX and on YouTube.
Saturday's flight is the 28th Falcon 9 mission for SpaceX so far in 2021, setting a new company record for the most number of rocket launches in a year. (That record was previously set in 2020, with SpaceX launching 26 Falcon 9 rockets.)
If all goes as planned, the company could launch a grand total of 30 Falcon 9 rockets this year, as there are two more launches on the calendar, which will blast off from Florida.
Saturday's flight continues SpaceX's effort to launch its newly upgraded Starlink internet satellites; the company recently provided its satellites with the ability to communicate with each other via laser links. This will increase efficiency and reduce the constellation's reliance on ground stations down here on Earth.
Company officials have said that the Starlink program was created with an overarching goal of providing high-speed internet access to users around the world, especially those in rural and remote areas. While providing those with little-to-no connectivity with means to access the internet, SpaceX is hoping it can generate revenue to help fund its deep-space ambitions.
If successful, Saturday's flight will bring the total number of Starlink satellites launched to 1,944. It will also add to SpaceX's efforts of providing coverage to users in higher latitudes. That's because launches from California typically sail into a polar orbit, allowing satellites to orbit the poles. This is SpaceX's second launch this year to put a batch of Starlink satellites in such an orbit. (The first blasted off in September.)
The flight will also mark another reuse milestone for SpaceX: the first time one of its boosters will fly for the 11th time.
In 2015 SpaceX recovered its first booster. Ever since the company has been trying to refine its reusability tactics and has enabled its rockets to launch and land multiple times with minimal downtime in between. That downtime has been significantly reduced as more rockets were recovered.
The rocket slated to fly Saturday morning is one of SpaceX's two oldest boosters and one of only two rockets to have 10 successful launches and landings under its belt. Previously, company founder and CEO Elon Musk said that 10 flights marked a significant milestone and that once a booster reached that many flights, it might have to go through more intensive refurbishments than usual.
However, Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s former head of flight reliability (now retired), said at the Spaceport Summit panel held in February that 10 flights is more of a guideline, and that the company will continue to fly boosters many more times past that mark.
SpaceX's West Coast resident and most prolific drone ship, "Of Course I Still Love You," will catch the booster as it returns to Earth, and if all goes as planned this booster could make its 12th flight sometime next year. The company will also continue its tradition of recovering the rocket's payload fairings that make up its protective nose cone, with the help of its recovery ships "NRC Quest" and "GO Quest," which were deployed prior to launch.