SpaceX mission deploys record number of satellites and nails landing

SpaceX dropped another mission in the record books over the weekend when it deployed a record 143 satellites into orbit in a single rocket launch. The previous record of 104 was set by India in 2017.

The privately owned space transportation company deployed the satellites as part of its Smallsat Rideshare Program in a mission that departed Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 10 a.m. ET on Sunday, January 24.

Liftoff! pic.twitter.com/js3zVM77rH

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 24, 2021

Specifically, the Transporter-1 mission carried 133 commercial and government spacecraft (including CubeSats, microsats, and orbital transfer vehicles) and 10 Starlink satellites for SpaceX’s internet-from-space initiative into orbit. The company also noted that the 10 Starlink satellites were the first in its rapidly growing constellation to deploy to a polar orbit.

As usual, the first-stage booster — which has served many other SpaceX missions, including the historic first crewed test flight of the Crew Dragon capsule last summer, the ANASIS-II mission, a Starlink mission, and a resupply mission to the International Space Station — made a safe return to Earth, touching down on the Of Course I Still Love You droneship that was waiting in the Atlantic Ocean.

SpaceX posted a video of the landing, though the feed was disappointingly choppy.

Falcon 9’s first stage has landed on the Of Course I Still Love You droneship pic.twitter.com/6gWWlLiXdG

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 24, 2021

For a better view of one of its rockets coming in to land during a previous mission, check out this incredible footage.

Before Sunday’s launch, which was delayed by a day because of poor weather conditions, SpaceX boss Elon Musk tweeted: “Launching many small satellites for a wide range of customers tomorrow. Excited about offering low-cost access to orbit for small companies!”

SpaceX started taking bookings for its rocket-based rideshare business in 2020, offering small-satellite deployment opportunities for as little as $1 million — a fraction of the tens of millions of dollars a company might have to pay if it booked an entire launch.

The small-satellite rideshare market is expanding rapidly, with other private companies such as California-based Rocket Lab and, more recently, Virgin Orbit competing for customers.

SpaceX has its finger in many pies, however, and attention is now turning to the second high-altitude flight test of its next-generation spacecraft and second stage booster, Starship, which could take place this week. The first test in December 2020 went according to plan until the rocket landed heavily and exploded in a ball of flames.

The goal is to use the Starship and the first-stage Super Heavy rocket to create a heavy lift vehicle for transporting cargo and passengers to the moon and eventually to Mars.

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