Four days after launching two astronauts to the International Space Station, SpaceX launched another Falcon 9 rocket Wednesday carrying the company’s eighth batch of Starlink internet satellites. It was the sixth Starlink flight so far this year, boosting the fast-growing constellation to nearly 500 satellites.
Using a rocket with four previous flights to its credit, the latest set of Starlinks got off the ground at 9:25 p.m. EDT when the Falcon 9’s nine first-stage engines thundered to life, throttled up to 1.7 million pounds of thrust and smoothly lifted off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Climbing away to the northeast, the 230-foot-tall rocket knifed through a thin overcast, putting on a spectacular show for area residents and tourists, lighting the clouds from above as it streaked toward space.
Two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, the engines shut down and the first stage fell away, flipping around and lining up for a landing on the company’s off-shore droneship “Just Read the Instructions.”
The second stage, meanwhile, ignited its single vacuum-rated Merlin engine and continued the climb to space, slipping into the planned preliminary orbit eight minutes and 55 seconds after launch.
At roughly the same time, the well-traveled first stage chalked up its fifth landing, SpaceX’s 53rd successful booster recovery and the 34th on a droneship. The landing came one day after the first stage used to launch astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken to the space station Saturday was hauled into Port Canaveral by the droneship “Of Course I Still Love You.”
With an uneventful climb to space Wednesday, the 60 Starlink satellites mounted in a stack atop the second stage were released to fly on their own about six minutes after reaching orbit, slowly spreading out as they departed.
After tests and checkout, each satellite’s low-power ion engine will be used to raise its orbit to an operational altitude of about 342 miles.
SpaceX has regulatory approval to launch more than 12,000 Starlink satellites in multiple orbital planes to provide high-speed, uninterrupted internet access from any point on Earth using small pizza box-size terminals.
The company plans to begin limited commercial service across the northern United States and Canada later this year after completing 12 launches to put 720 satellites into orbit. Going into Wednesday’s launch, SpaceX had deployed 420 Starlinks over seven missions.
The latest batch includes satellites equipped with deployable sun shades designed to minimize sunlight reflecting off bright surfaces. Astronomers have expressed concern that the enormous number of planned Starlinks could hamper observations by sensitive optical and radio telescopes.
SpaceX is working with the astronomical community to mitigate those concerns, testing dark coatings and now sunshades to come up with a solution.