Update January 6th, 10:20PM ET: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket took off at 9:19PM ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and deployed the 60 satellites about an hour after launch. The rocket also landed on the company’s drone ship shortly after launch, marking the fourth time this particular rocket has gone to space and back.
Original Story: Tonight, SpaceX is set to launch its third batch of 60 Starlink satellites into orbit, part of the company’s ongoing initiative to create a mega-constellation of spacecraft that will beam internet connectivity to the Earth below. SpaceX will have 180 spacecraft in orbit following a successful launch, bringing the company even closer to having the most satellites around Earth at once.
One of the satellites on board this launch will be slightly different than the other 59. One side of the satellite will be coated in a material meant to make the vehicle appear darker while in orbit. SpaceX is taking this step to counteract concerns voiced by the astronomy community, which is worried that the constellation of Starlink satellites might muck up their observations of the Universe.
It turns out that SpaceX’s Starlink satellites are bright — even more so than the average satellite. After the company launched its first batch in May 2019, satellite trackers and astronomers quickly noticed just how brightly the 60 spacecraft shone in the sky. That made scientists nervous about how the Starlink constellation could interfere with their future work. In order to get detailed observations of distant cosmic objects, astronomers typically take long-exposure images of the night sky with ground-based telescopes. But whenever a bright satellite passes through the telescope’s field of view, it creates a white streak through the picture, obscuring the result.
The planned size of this constellation adds to astronomers’ worries. In order to provide global internet coverage from space, SpaceX will launch a gigantic amount of satellites to a low orbit, so at least one spacecraft can be in view of the ground at all times. SpaceX currently has permission from the Federal Communications Commission to launch nearly 12,000 satellites, and the company recently requested access to launch an additional batch of 30,000 satellites from the International Telecommunication Union, an international satellite regulator. With so many bright satellites passing overhead, the night sky could look very different in the future — with lots of tiny bright dots zooming overhead no matter your location on Earth.
But by making the Starlink satellites darker, SpaceX may be able to lessen the effects of the Starlink constellation and help preserve astronomers’ view of the Universe. Of course, it depends on how this coating holds up in space. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell noted in December that launching this one coated satellite is just an experiment, and there’s no guarantee that it’ll be enough to darken the satellite.
Regardless of how the experiment turns out, SpaceX is forging ahead with its Starlink launches at a breakneck pace. The company already has plans to launch two other missions, with 60 satellites apiece, within the next month. Ultimately, the goal is to launch one rocket filled with 60 satellites every couple of weeks this year. SpaceX is in a race against itself to launch half of its first 12,000 satellites by 2024, in order to fulfill its license with the FCC.
For tonight’s launch, SpaceX is using one of the company’s Falcon 9 rockets that has flown before. This mission will be the rocket’s fourth trip to space, a rare feat for one of SpaceX’s vehicles. The company has only launched one other Falcon 9 rocket four times. Tonight’s rocket is also set to land on one of SpaceX’s drone ships in the Atlantic Ocean. If that goes well, the rocket could conceivably fly for a fifth time. SpaceX has yet to fly a single rocket to space five times. The company also plans to catch part of the rocket’s nose cone after launch, using one of its net-wielding boats.
Liftoff is slated for 9:19PM ET from SpaceX’s launch site at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The launch is also being overseen by the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing, which has long supervised launches out of the Cape, but this will be the organization’s first launch under the newly minted US Space Force. The 45th Space Wing became part of the Space Force through the National Defense Authorization Act that Congress and President Trump signed in December.
Weather for tonight’s mission is looking good for launch, with a more than 90 percent chance that conditions will be favorable, according to the 45th Space Wing. SpaceX’s coverage of the launch will begin 15 minutes before takeoff.