CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX successfully launched a Falcon 9 rocket for a record 11th time Saturday (Dec. 18), sending a new stack of Starlink satellites into orbit from California in a predawn liftoff.
The previously flown Falcon 9 rocket blasted off at 7:41 a.m. EST (1241 GMT, 04:41 a.m. local time) from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Space Force Station in California, carrying a stack of 52 Starlink satellites.
Approximately nine minutes after liftoff, the rocket’s first stage returned to Earth and touched down on the deck of SpaceX‘s most prolific drone ship, “Of Course I Still Love You”, marking the company’s 98th successful landing. With its record 11th flight in the books, the Falcon 9 booster is SpaceX’s most-flown rocket yet.
“We did just have a successful landing first stage landing,” Youmei Zhou, a propulsion engineer for SpaceX, said during a live launch broadcast. “Our 98th overall landing of an orbital class rocket.”
Saturday’s early morning liftoff is one for the record books as it marks the 29th Falcon 9 mission for SpaceX so far in 2021, further solidifying a new company record for the most number of rocket launches in a year. (That record was previously set in 2020, with SpaceX launching 26 Falcon 9 rockets.)
If all goes as planned, the company could launch a grand total of 31 Falcon 9 missions this year, as there are two more launches on the calendar, which will both lift off from Florida.
The first of those missions will launch a communications satellite called Turksat 5B less than 19 hours after the Starlink mission sailed into orbit — a new company record. Liftoff is set for 10:58 p.m. EST (0358 GMT Sunday) from a pad at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
On Tuesday (Dec. 21), SpaceX is scheduled to launch another Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon cargo ship to the International Space Station for NASA from the agency’s Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
More Starlink satellites in orbit
Saturday’s flight continues SpaceX’s efforts to expand and upgrade its burgeoning Starlink internet constellation. This is the fourth flight to carry its newly upgraded Starlink internet satellites, as the company recently equipped each of the flat-paneled satellites with the ability to communicate with each other via laser links. This will increase efficiency and reduce the constellation’s reliance on ground stations down here on Earth, company officials have said.
This launch brings the total number of Starlink satellites launched up to 1,944 since May 2019. It also has an unusual orbit, which will hug the coast of California as the satellites are eventually expected to reach a parking spot that’s a bit more centralized. (Typically, launches from California target a more polar trajectory.)
SpaceX has five orbital shells designed to be filled with roughly 4,400 Starlink internet satellites. These shells will be located at various altitudes above the planet, between 335 and 348 miles (540 and 560 kilometers) and at inclinations of 53, 53.2, 70, and 97.6 degrees. (The inclination is the angle between the orbital plane and the equator.)
To date, the 53-degree shell has been filled and SpaceX is turning its sights to other inclinations. Of the recent Starlink missions to launch, two payloads have been deposited into the 53.2-degree inclination and one into the 70-degree slot. That launch blasted off from California in Sept.
Saturday’s mission will fill another spot in the 53.2-degree orbit, marking a switch to a non-polar orbit for a California payload.
SpaceX aims to use its Starlink megaconstellation to connect people around the globe to the internet, particularly those in rural and remote areas who have little-to-no connectivity. Company officials have said that the program now serves more than 100,000 subscribers in 20 countries and is still growing.