Gallery: SpaceX begins launching its Starlink constellation
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — In the black of night, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying 60 Starlink spacecraft to begin its satellite internet mega constellation.
Liftoff took place at 10:30 p.m. EDT May 23 (02:30 GMT May 24), 2019, from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The skies were clear and the countdown and flight proceeded without issue.
Within nine minutes, the Starlink satellites were in a parking orbit, and within 46 minutes they were placed in a final deployment orbit of about 273 miles (440 kilometers), inclined 53 degrees from the equator.
Just over an hour into the flight, all 60 Starlink satellites were separated by rotating the second stage and releasing the spacecraft all at once. There were no separation mechanisms on the vehicles and they just slowly drifted apart.
According to Elon Musk via Twitter, each 500-pound (227-kilogram) Starlink satellite was soon brought online with solar panel deployment completed and Krypton ion thrusters activated.
The next step will be for the spacecraft to use onboard propulsion to raise its orbit to about 340 miles (550 kilometers).
While the satellites were making their way to space, the Falcon 9 first stage made its way—for the third time in less than a year—to a drone ship at sea. The booster core successfully landed on “Of Course I Still Love You” about 8.5 minutes after launching from Florida. The floating platform was located some 385 miles (620 kilometers) off shore.
Additionally, Musk said the two payload fairing halves were recovered. They presumably performed a parachute-assisted splashdown in the ocean a little farther downrange than the drone ship. They were quickly retrieved and brought aboard the recovery ships GO Searcher and GO Navigator.
This launch is expected to be the first of many dedicated Starlink missions to deploy a satellite internet constellation. As many a six more with 60 spacecraft each are expected before the end of 2019.
All told, phase one of Starlink is expected to include nearly 1,600 satellites with future expansions bringing the overall constellation to 12,000 spacecraft within the next eight to 10 years.
At 60 satellites each, that would mean around 200 Falcon 9 launches just for this constellation over the next decade.
The following photos were taken by SpaceFlight Insider’s visual team and are courtesy of Graham Smith, Scott Schilke, Michael Howard and Vikash Mahadeo. If you enjoy our coverage and are able, consider supporting us on Patreon to help in our efforts to to bring you fantastic content about the space industry!
An animation of a Starlink satellite deploying its solar panel. Video courtesy of SpaceX