SpaceX launches 60 more internet satellites, bringing total to more than 400

SpaceX achieved another successful mission on Wednesday, April 22, deploying 60 Starlink internet satellites before landing the first-stage booster on its drone ship off the Florida coast.

The space company’s Falcon 9 lifted off from Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center mid-afternoon, marking the fourth outing for this particular rocket.

The spectacle was streamed live on SpaceX’s YouTube channel, with images and clips of key moments posted on Twitter.

The launch was hitch-free, with the Falcon 9 soaring toward clear skies …

A short while later, the rocket returned safely to Earth, landing on SpaceX’s “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship …

Finally, the 60 Starlink satellites deployed, departing in a tight pack before slowly spreading out …

The $10 billion Starlink project is aimed at creating a system capable of beaming affordable broadband to locations around the world where internet connectivity is currently unreliable, too pricey, or non-existent. According to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, customers will connect to the Starlink service using a device that looks like a “thin, flat, round UFO on a stick.”

The first batch of 60 satellites arrived in low-Earth orbit in May 2019, with regular deployments since then, including Wednesday’s, taking the tally to 422 (two test satellites that went up early on will soon be decommissioned).

Musk said last year that the project could be economically viable with 1,000 satellites, though the deployment of many more satellites — the company is considering a constellation of 12,000, or possibly even more — would allow it to provide a broader range of services for home and business.

Astronomer anxiety

The ambitious project has been facing pushback from astronomers who fear that the satellites will hinder their work, with sun reflection potentially impacting their ability to get a clear view of deep space, among other issues.

SpaceX says it’s taking astronomers’ concerns seriously, and is testing various solutions aimed at eliminating the reflection, including painting the Earth-facing sections of the satellites to make them less shiny.

But the satellite’s solar panels, too, appear to be causing problems. Just hours before Wednesday’s launch, Musk responded to a Twitter inquiry suggesting that the satellites have recently become “brighter and more noticeable” in the night sky. The billionaire entrepreneur put it down to the angle of the satellites’ solar panels, adding, “We’re fixing it now.”

Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, promised to “do trial and error to figure out the best way” to solve the problem.

SpaceX’s latest Falcon 9 launch comes ahead of its much-anticipated debut crewed mission in partnership with NASA using the same rocket and the Crew Dragon. The launch is slated to take place on May 27 and will carry two astronauts to the International Space Station.

The historic mission will mark the end of U.S. reliance on Russia’s Soyuz program, with NASA sending astronauts into space from American soil for the first time since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011.

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