SpaceX has successfully launched its latest batch of satellites for its Starlink program.
In addition to 58 Starlink satellites, the launch also included three satellites from Earth imaging company Planet Labs as part of SpaceX’s SmallSat Rideshare Program. The program allows smaller companies to attach their payloads to SpaceX launches to be taken to a range of orbits, for a much lower cost than a dedicated satellite launch.
The Planet Labs SkySats were distributed into orbit on the way up, bringing the total number of Planet Labs satellites to 18. Three more Planet Lab SkySats will be distributed on a Starlink mission this summer, completing the fleet of 21 satellites.
The Starlink and other satellites were atop a Falcon 9 rocket, SpaceX’s workhorse, which was also recently used for the historic launch of the manned test flight of the Crew Dragon capsule, as well as previous Starlink launches.
The launch took place at 2:21 a.m. PT on Saturday, June 13, from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. At 1 minute and 16 seconds after launch, the Falcon 9 rocket reached max q, the maximum dynamic pressure that the vehicle experiences during ascent. At around 2.5 minutes after launch, the first stage of the rocket separated and fell back to Earth. As it falls, the first stage fires its Merlin engines to slow its descent to allow it to land in its target zone.
The first stage was successfully caught by the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You in the Atlantic Ocean, so it will be able to be reused in future launches. This reusability aspect of the Falcon 9 rocket is part of what makes it so innovative, as rocket launches are potentially much cheaper when rocket parts can be used for multiple launches. Although SpaceX has had trouble in the past with catching its rocket boosters, recent launches have had a much better track record of landing these stages on the drone ships.
Now that the Starlink satellites are deployed, they can unfurl their solar arrays and move away from each other and into their intended orbits. The satellites have proven contentious in the astronomical community due to the potential for them to interfere with astronomical data, so SpaceX has designed a satellite with a deployable sun visor, which it says should mitigate these effects. This prototype satellite is still moving into position, so we will have to wait a few weeks to see how effective the visor is.
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