Originally expected to take off in late January, the rocket was repeatedly held up by undisclosed technical issues, the latest coming Sunday when the countdown was aborted less than 90 seconds from liftoff. But the rocket finally flashed to life at historic pad 39A at 3:24 a.m. EST Thursday and the hard-luck flight got underway with a burst of flame and a crackling roar.
The launching came just nine hours after another SpaceX rocket, a prototype of the company’s heavy lift Starship upper stage, carried out a test flight on the coast of Texas, climbing to an altitude of about six miles as planned before plunging back to a tail-first landing. A few minutes after touchdown,in a sudden explosion.
It was the third mishap in a row for the Starship test program, but the rocket was able to stick the landing for the first time. A few hours later, the Falcon 9 chalked up SpaceX’s 20th successful Starlink launch, its sixth flight so far this year and its 109th overall.
Putting on a dramatic if brief overnight show, the 229-foot-tall booster shot off to the northeast atop a long jet of flaming exhaust, quickly disappearing from view in low clouds blanketing Florida’s Space Coast.
Two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, the well-traveled first stage, the second to reach the eight-flight milestone, shut down and fell away, flying itself to a pinpoint landing on an offshore landing barge stationed several hundred miles from Cape Canaveral. It was SpaceX’s 75th successful booster recovery, its 53rd at sea.
The Falcon 9’s second stage, meanwhile, fired its single vacuum-rated Merlin engine twice to reach the planned 167-mile-high deployment altitude. The 60 Starlinks will use their on-board ion propulsion systems to reach their operational orbit 341 miles up.
With Thursday’s launch, SpaceX has now put 1,205 Starlinks into orbit since flights began in May 2019. Space analyst Jonathan McDowell estimates 63 have re-entered and 17 no longer appear to be maneuvering. But the company has regulatory approval to launch thousands of relay stations in six orbital plans to provide subscribers with uninterrupted internet access from any point in the world.
While the planned network is far from complete, SpaceX is offering initial beta service in selected areas and promises to “continue expansion to near global coverage of the populated world in 2021.”
Data speeds range from 50 to 150 megabytes per second and the company warns of “brief periods of no connectivity at all.” But “as we launch more satellites, install more ground stations and improve our networking software, data speed, latency and uptime will improve dramatically.”