Update January 29th, 10:10AM ET: SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket on time this morning, deploying all 60 satellites into orbit. The rocket also performed another landing on the company’s drone ship in the Atlantic after launch. While SpaceX did catch one half of the rocket’s fairing, the other half just missed its boat.
Original story: A week after performing a crucial test flight for NASA, SpaceX is poised to launch yet another Falcon 9 rocket from Florida. This mission is tasked with sending up the latest batch of internet-beaming satellites for SpaceX, adding on to the roughly 180 satellites the company already has in orbit.
Today’s flight is the fourth launch for SpaceX’s Starlink project, a massive constellation of satellites that aims to provide internet coverage to every point on the globe. SpaceX has permission to launch nearly 12,000 satellites and has expressed interest in launching 30,000 more. To fulfill its licensing obligations, SpaceX has to launch nearly 6,000 within the next five to six years. The company plans to launch up to 24 Starlink missions this year.
Each Starlink launch consists of 60 satellites, so today’s mission will bring SpaceX’s constellation to about 240 satellites in orbit. SpaceX already launched another 60 satellites on January 6th of this year. That batch included one satellite with an experimental coating, aimed at decreasing the vehicle’s brightness in the sky. The experiment is meant to appease astronomers who have expressed concern about how the super-bright Starlink satellites might mess up their observations of the Universe. SpaceX will continue to launch its regular bright satellites in the meantime while it determines whether the coating is working.
Liftoff of today’s mission is slated for 9:06AM ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. SpaceX is using one of its used Falcon 9 rockets for the job, a vehicle that’s flown to space and back twice before. The rocket will deploy the satellites to an altitude of about 290 kilometers — an initial parking orbit — about an hour after launch. Following some systems checks, the satellites will then raise their altitude to the final 550-kilometer orbit.
SpaceX is going to try to recover as many Falcon 9 parts as possible today. The vehicle will attempt one of the company’s signature rocket landings about 10 minutes after launch, touching down on a floating drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. SpaceX will also try to catch the Falcon 9’s nose cone — or fairing — the bulbous structure on top of the rocket that shields the satellites during launch. Once in space, the nose cone breaks in half and falls back to Earth. Using a navigation system and parachutes, the fairing halves will attempt to land on two boats, each sporting a giant net to gently catch the hardware. SpaceX has been able to catch one fairing half at a time, but it has yet to catch both of them on a single flight.
SpaceX has been trying to get this flight off the ground for the last week, but bad weather has caused repeated delays. A launch attempt on Monday had to be postponed due to intense winds high above the launch site. If SpaceX can somehow manage to launch today, the company will start live coverage about 15 minutes before takeoff.