SpaceX launches 60 more Starlink internet satellites — and hits reusability milestones

SpaceX launch
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket rises from its launch pad, sending 60 satellites into orbit. (SpaceX via YouTube)

SpaceX sent its second set of 60 Starlink satellites into orbit today, atop a Falcon 9 rocket that featured the fourth go-round for the first-stage booster and the first reuse of a nose cone.

Liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida came on time at 9:56 a.m. ET (6:56 a.m. PT). One of SpaceX’s launch commentators gave a nod to Veterans Day as the rocket rose: “With gratitude to our veterans, today and always, go USA!”

Minutes afterward, the rocket’s first stage flew itself back to what has now become a routine touchdown on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean, while the second stage and its payload continued to orbit. The booster had flown three times before — so today’s mission marked the first time the same rocket booster has been launched and recovered four times.

The nose cone, or fairing, was previously flown in April and was recovered at sea after that launch for its precedent-setting reuse today.

Satellite deployment began a little more than an hour after liftoff. The Starlink deployment system releases satellites like a deck of cards. After they drift apart, the satellites will turn on their krypton ion thrusters and raise their orbits to a target altitude of roughly 350 miles (550 kilometers).

Today’s launch highlighted two of SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s top priorities for spaceflight: increasing rocket reusability to drive down the cost of access to space, and creating a constellation of broadband data satellites that might one day fund the establishment of a city on Mars.

SpaceX’s facilities in Redmond, Wash., are playing a key role in building the Starlink satellites for that constellation. The company is aiming to put 12,000 satellites into low Earth orbit with the goal of providing low-cost internet access to billions of people who are currently underserved. The Starlink satellite tally could eventually run into the tens of thousands, based on recent regulatory filings.

SpaceX employees in Redmond, Wash., give a cheer during the countdown to the Falcon 9 launch. SpaceX’s Starlink satellites are designed and built in Redmond. (SpaceX via YouTube)

The first set of 60 flat-panel spacecraft was launched back in May and is currently undergoing orbital tests. In the days after launch, those satellites could be seen as streaks in the night sky, and that’s likely to be the case this time as well.

Not all skywatchers are happy about that: Some astronomers worry that thousands of such satellites will interfere with their observations. SpaceX has said it will take steps to address their concerns, such as making the satellites less shiny, but this batch of spacecraft doesn’t reflect that design change.

The satellites have been upgraded to maximize the use of their frequency bands. On the eve of the launch, SpaceX said one of the satellites may not be able to raise its orbit — but the satellites are designed to burn up completely in the atmosphere once their orbits decay.

SpaceX could start offering limited Starlink service as early as next year.

In addition to the thousands of satellites that SpaceX plans to launch, thousands more are being planned for similar broadband mega-constellations being built by OneWeb, Telesat, Amazon’s Project Kuiper and other ventures.

That prospect has raised deep concerns about satellite traffic management, as illustrated by a close call in September that involved a Starlink satellite and a European wind-monitoring satellite