Update for 2 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT): SpaceX has called off today’s Starlink/BlackSky launch due to “additional time for pre-launch checkouts.” A new launch date will be determined later.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX is continuing its rapid launch cadence as the private spaceflight company prepares to launch its third set of Starlink satellites in just three weeks. The new batch will join its burgeoning megaconstellation already in orbit later today (June 26), and you can watch it live online.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch the Starlink mission from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Liftoff is scheduled for no earlier than 4:18 p.m. EDT (2018 GMT).
You can watch SpaceX’s Starlink launch webcast here and on the Space.com homepage, courtesy of SpaceX, beginning about 15 minutes before liftoff. You’ll also be able to watch the launch directly from SpaceX here.
This flight is SpaceX’s tenth dedicated Starlink launch and the eighth such mission of 2020. It’s also SpaceX’s 11th launch of 2020, with the company launching a record four times in the last four weeks. The California-based rocket builder kicked off this rapid pace with the historic launch of two NASA astronauts — Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken — on May 30, and hasn’t slowed down since. As June comes to a close, SpaceX still has two more launches scheduled before the July 4 holiday. In addition to today’s launch, the company expects to launch an upgraded GPS satellite for the U.S. Space Force on June 30.
But first, it will launch another set of internet-beaming satellites. Just like the previous launch, the payload will contain other passengers. As part of SpaceX’s rideshare program, this flight carries two BlackSky satellites, as part of a rideshare agreement with Spaceflight Inc.
SpaceX recently tweeted that more than 100 spacecraft have been booked on upcoming flights as part of the rideshare program. One such customer with multiple bookings is Spaceflight Inc., who arranged the ride for BlackSky.
Tucked inside the rocket’s nose cone is a stack of 57 Starlink satellites along with two Earth-observing satellites for BlackSky — the second official rideshare mission (though the company had flown rideshare missions before) under SpaceX’s new rideshare program.
The star of today’s mission is another four-time flier for SpaceX. The booster, designated B1051 by SpaceX, previously launched the Demo-1 mission in 2019, which sent an uncrewed Crew Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station, a trio of Earth-observing satellites for Canada, as well as two Starlink missions this year.
SpaceX regularly launches used Falcon 9 boosters and has built up a fleet of veteran rockets with multiple flights under their belts. Ahead of the company’s most recent launch on June 13, SpaceX diverted slightly from its typical prelaunch preparations and did not fire up its Falcon 9 rocket prior to liftoff. This type of routine test, known as a static fire test, involves fueling and briefly firing the rocket’s nine engines while it is held down on the pad.
However, SpaceX chose to test fire B1051 prior to today’s flight. The reason for the change in protocol is unclear, though the company’s fleet of flight proven boosters have a proven track record for reliability.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has flown 87 times to date, many of those flights on refurbished boosters. The company has already proven that the same booster can launch and land five times, as first witnessed during a previous Starlink launch on June 3. That booster is expected to fly again soon.
The company’s first attempt to launch and land a rocket five times didn’t go as smoothly as the rocket experienced an engine anomaly in flight and missed its landing on the drone ship. The anomaly was later attributed to some residual cleaning agent that was trapped inside an engine component. SpaceX has since changed their refurbishment procedures and successfully launched and recovered the same booster five times.
SpaceX’s increased launch cadence has prompted the company to rely on two drone ships operating in the same ocean. The company’s drone ship “Just Read the Instructions” recently moved to Port Canaveral here from its former home in California’s Port of Los Angeles. Prior to its first booster catch, the ship received some sweet upgrades, including new onboard cameras, which provided uninterrupted views of a booster landing on its deck.
The addition of “Just Read the Instructions” to SpaceX’s Florida fleet, means the company is now able to launch (and catch) more rockets.
The goal of SpaceX’s Starlink project is to provide users around the world, especially those in remote and rural areas, with constant, high-speed internet access. The company aims to do so via a growing constellation of satellites in orbit.
Elon Musk, SpaceX founder and CEO, has said the company will need at least 400 Starlink satellites in orbit to offer “minor” broadband coverage, and at least 800 to provide “moderate” coverage. This launch will bring the number of Starlink satellites in orbit up to 597, more than halfway to that moderate coverage goal.
The weather for today’s launch is looking promising, with only a 30% chance of weather violation, according to forecasters at the 45th Weather Squadron. Launching from Florida in the afternoon in summer can be tricky, as that’s prime thunderstorm time.
SpaceX has also deployed its two fairing-catching ships with giant nets: GO Ms. Tree and GO Ms. Chief in hopes of snagging the Falcon 9’s payload fairings as they fall back to Earth. Weather will play a big role in whether or not a catch will be successful. The fairing halves are outfitted with software that navigates them to the recovery zone, as well as a parachute system that lets them gently glide back to Earth.
SpaceX’s two fairing catchers will not attempt to snag the fairings as they fall but are stationed in the recovery zone to scoop them up after they land. To date, SpaceX has reflown several refurbished fairings, ultimately reducing the price of the rocket.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect that SpaceX will not attempt to catch the Falcon 9 rocket’s payload fairings after launch, but will be on hand to retrieve them from the water.
Visit Space.com for complete coverage of SpaceX’s Starlink launch.