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SpaceX closes out busy week with launch of more Starlink satellites

A Falcon 9 rocket takes off from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 1:12 a.m. EDT (0512 GMT) Friday. Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

With a Falcon 9 rocket launch Friday, SpaceX added 57 more satellites to the Starlink broadband fleet and deployed a pair of piggyback commercial Earth-imaging reconnaissance satellites for BlackSky, wrapping up a busy week that began with SpaceX’s return of two NASA astronauts to Earth and the first low-altitude test flight of the company’s next-generation Starship vehicle.

The 59 commercial satellites took off at 1:12:05 a.m. EDT (0512:05 GMT) on top of a Falcon 9 rocket from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Nine Merlin 1D engines flashed to life with a deep rumble to hurl the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) rocket into the sky with 1.7 million pound of thrust. After pitching to align with a trajectory toward the northeast from Florida’s Space Coast, the Falcon 9 soared into the stratosphere trailing a brilliant orange exhaust plume before shutting down its first stage engines two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff.

Seconds later, the first stage booster dropped away from the Falcon 9’s second stage to begin a guided descent toward SpaceX’s drone ship parked in the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Cape Canaveral.

The Merlin engine on the second stage ignited two times to maneuver the Starlink and BlackSky satellites to a near-circular orbit nearly 250 miles (400 kilometers) above Earth. Meanwhile, the Falcon 9’s first stage booster flew to a propulsive landing on SpaceX’s rocket recovery vessel, a football field-sized platform positioned nearly 400 miles (around 630 kilometers) downrange from the Kennedy Space Center.

Two BlackSky Earth-imaging satellites, each with a mass of about 121 pounds (55 kilograms), deployed from the top of the stack of Starlink spacecraft more than an hour into the mission. BlackSky booked the launch for its satellites through Spaceflight, a Seattle-based rideshare broker, utilizing room in the Falcon 9 rocket’s payload compartment made available by SpaceX.

Read our earlier story for background on BlackSky and SpaceX’s rideshare launch service offering.

BlackSky is deploying a fleet of Earth observation satellites designed to monitor changes across Earth’s surface, feeding near real-time geospatial intelligence data to governments and corporate clients. The two microsatellites on Friday’s mission are designated Global 7 and Global 8, but they are actually the fifth and sixth operational satellites in the BlackSky fleet, which the company could eventually number more than 50 satellites, depending on customer demand.

The BlackSky satellites were built by LeoStella, a joint venture between Spaceflight Industries and Thales Alenia Space, a major European satellite manufacturer. LeoStella’s production facility is located in Tukwila, Washington, a suburb of Seattle.

The satellites have electrothermal propulsion systems that use water as a propellant. Each of the current generation of BlackSky Global spacecraft can capture up to 1,000 color images per day, with a resolution of about 3 feet (1 meter).

With the piggyback payloads away, the Falcon 9’s upper stage spun up for release of the 57 Starlink satellites at 2:45 a.m. EDT (0645 GMT). Live video beamed back to Earth from the Falcon 9 rocket showed the flat-panel satellites flying free of the upper stage as they soared nearly 250 miles over the Pacific Ocean near Baja California.

SpaceX declared success, concluding the 90th flight of a Falcon 9 rocket since 2010, and the 13th Falcon 9 launch of the year. It was also the 57th time SpaceX has recovered a reusable Falcon first stage booster, and it marked the fifth flight of the booster designated B1051.

The launch early Friday came less than five days after the return of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft to Earth with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, completing the ship’s first mission with crew members on-board. The test flight sets the stage for NASA’s certification of the Crew Dragon for regular crew rotation flights to the International Space Station.

On Tuesday, SpaceX performed a low-altitude “hop” test of a prototype of the company’s next-generation Starship space transportation vehicle.

SpaceX’s Starlink network is designed to provide low-latency, high-speed Internet service around the world. With Friday’s mission, SpaceX has launched 595 flat-panel Starlink spacecraft since beginning full-scale deployment of the orbital network in May 2019, making the company the owner of the world’s largest fleet of satellites.

Each of the flat-panel satellites weighs about a quarter-ton, and are built by SpaceX in Redmond, Washington. Once in orbit, they will deploy solar panels to begin producing electricity, then activate their krypton ion thrusters to raise their altitude to around 341 miles, or 550 kilometers.

SpaceX says it needs 24 launches to provide Starlink Internet coverage over nearly all of the populated world, and 12 launches could enable coverage of higher latitude regions, such as Canada and the northern United States.

The launch Friday will be the 10th mission to carry Starlink satellites into orbit, but the Starlink spacecraft deployed on the network’s first dedicated launch were designed to demonstrate satellite and payload performance. SpaceX has not said if any of those satellites might be incorporated into the operational fleet.

The Falcon 9 rocket can loft up to 60 Starlink satellites — each weighing about a quarter-ton — on a single Falcon 9 launch. But launches with secondary payloads, such as BlackSky’s new Earth-imaging satellites, can carry fewer Starlinks to allow the rideshare passengers room to fit on the rocket.

The initial phase of the Starlink network will number 1,584 satellites, according to SpaceX’s regulatory filings with the Federal Communications Commission. But SpaceX plans launch thousands more satellites, depending on market demand, and the company has regulatory approval from the FCC to operate up to 12,000 Starlink relay nodes in low Earth orbit.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, says the Starlink network could earn revenue to fund the company’s ambition for interplanetary space travel, and eventually establish a human settlement on Mars.

SpaceX fans sleuthing through coding on the Starlink website last month found images of a prototype version of the antenna consumers will use to connect to the Internet network.

Musk responded to the tweet, writing the the Starlink ground terminal “has motors to self-orient for optimal view angle. No expert installer required.”

SpaceX has not released pricing information for the Starlink service.

SpaceX says it will soon begin “beta testing” using the Starlink network. The company is collecting email information and mailing addresses from prospective customers, and SpaceX says it will provide updates on Starlink news and service availability to those who sign up.

The beta testing is expected to begin for users living at higher latitudes — such as the northern United States and southern Canada — where the partially-complete Starlink satellite fleet can provide more consistent service. SpaceX will send a Starlink kit including a small antenna, router and other equipment to people selected for beta testing.

Astronomers have raised concerns about the brightness of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, and other companies that plan to launch large numbers of broadband satellites into low Earth orbit.

The Starlink satellites are brighter than expected, and are visible in trains soon after each launch, before spreading out and dimming as they travel higher above Earth.

SpaceX introduced a darker coating on a Starlink satellite launched in January in a bid to reduce the amount of sunlight the spacecraft reflects down to Earth. That offered some improvement, but not enough for ultra-sensitive observatories like the U.S government-funded Vera Rubin Observatory in Chile, which will collect all-sky images to study distant galaxies, stars, and search for potentially dangerous asteroids close to Earth.

SpaceX launched a satellite June 3 with a new unfolding radio-transparent sunshade to block sunlight from reaching bright surfaces on the spacecraft, such as its antennas. SpaceX says all Starlink satellites beginning with the spacecraft launched Friday will carry the sunshades.

Coupled with changes in how the satellites are oriented when they are at lower altitudes soon after launch, the sun visors could alleviate the most serious impacts on astronomy from the Starlink network, and eliminate the Starlink satellites from naked eye vision once they reach their 341-mile-high operational orbit.

SpaceX plans to fly a sunshade structure on new Starlink satellites. Credit: SpaceX

The Vera Rubin Observatory’s 3,200-megapixel camera will start astronomical surveys in 2022. Each image will cover a region of the sky the size of 40 full moons, and many of the images will include light streaks left by satellites from the Starlink network, and potentially other satellite constellations.

The worst impacts will come after dusk and before dawn. That’s a time of day when astronomers want to search for asteroids.

Astronomers on the Vera Rubin Observatory team say SpaceX has been working with them since last year to try to reduce the impacts of the Starlink network on their scientific program. Astronomers illuminated a Vera Rubin imaging detector in a test to see how it would respond to the passage of a satellite as bright as a Starlink. They found the satellite leaves behind not just a single trail, but “ghost” trails away from the spacecraft’s path.

Scientists from Vera Rubin Observatory said the ghost artifacts could be removed with software if the Starlink satellites are dimmer than 7th magnitude. Observations of the Starlink spacecraft with the darker coating indicate that change dimmed the satellite to about 6.1 magnitude, somewhat shy of Vera Rubin’s requirement.

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Live coverage: SpaceX plans overnight launch from Kennedy Space Center

Live coverage of the countdown and launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The mission will launch SpaceX’s tenth batch of Starlink broadband satellites. Text updates will appear automatically below. Follow us on Twitter.

Spaceflight Now members can watch a live view of the pad. Join now.

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After delays, Falcon 9 rocket back on launch pad with Starlink satellites

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket stands vertical on pad 39A on Thursday morning. Credit: Spaceflight Now

After a six-week delay for undisclosed reasons, SpaceX raised a Falcon 9 vertical on its launch pad Thursday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for another try early Friday to send into orbit the company’s next batch of Starlink Internet relay stations and a pair of commercial BlackSky Earth-imaging microsatellites.

The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) launcher is set for takeoff at 1:12:05 a.m. EDT (0512:05 GMT) Friday from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center with 57 more Starlink satellites.

It will be SpaceX’s first launch to carry a full set of Starlink satellites equipped with new sunshades, or visors, in an attempt to make the spacecraft less visible to ground-based telescopes, addressing concerns voiced by astronomers that thousands of Starlink satellites could interfere with scientific observations.

“All Starlink satellites on this flight are equipped with a deployable visor to block sunlight from hitting the brightest spots of the spacecraft — a measure SpaceX has taken as part of our work with leading astronomical groups to mitigate satellite reflectivity,” SpaceX says on its website.

Two commercial Earth observation satellites from BlackSky will accompany the Starlink payloads into orbit, taking advantage of SpaceX’s rideshare service, which sells excess capacity on Falcon 9 missions to other companies.

The mission set for launch Friday was originally supposed to take off in late June, but SpaceX has delayed the flight multiple times. The company has not disclosed any details about the nature of the problems — other than weather — that have delayed the Starlink/BlackSky mission.

The Starlink/BlackSky launch was supposed to take off June 26, but SpaceX delayed the mission to conduct additional pre-launch checkouts, the company said on Twitter. A launch attempt July 8 was scrubbed minutes before liftoff by poor weather.

SpaceX called off another launch attempt July 11, and the company again said officials made the decision “to allow more time for checkouts,” without providing further details.

The concerns that delayed the Starlink/BlackSky launch have not affected other SpaceX missions.

SpaceX successfully launched two Falcon 9 rockets June 30 and July 20 from Cape Canaveral with a U.S. military GPS navigation satellite and the Anasis 2 military communications satellite for South Korea.

The Starlink/BlackSky launch was tentatively planned to launch last week from the Kennedy Space Center, but there were range safety concerns about the Falcon 9 rocket taking off from a pad near where NASA’s Perseverance rover — with a nuclear power generator on-board — was being readied for takeoff.

SpaceX says the Falcon 9 rocket poised for launch Friday will be powered by a kerosene-fueled first stage booster that previously flew on four missions, beginning with the launch of the company’s Crew Dragon spaceship on its first unpiloted test flight to the International Space Station on March 2, 2019.

Since then, the reusable first stage booster — designated B1051 — launched and landed successfully on missions June 12, 2019, and Jan. 29 and April 22 of this year. This will be the fifth flight of this particular first stage booster.

The launch early Friday will be the 90th flight of a Falcon 9 rocket since 2010, and the 13th launch by SpaceX so far this year.

A Falcon 9 first stage booster lands on SpaceX’s drone ship Jan. 29 in the Atlantic Ocean following a previous Starlink launch. The same booster will launch again on Friday’s mission. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX’s launch team will ready the rocket for loading of super-chilled, densified propellants Thursday night, before the start of the countdown’s automated sequencer at 12:37 a.m. EDT (0437 GMT).

At that time, kerosene and liquid oxygen will begin pumping aboard the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage, and kerosene will start flowing into the rocket’s second stage. At 12:56 a.m. EDT (0456 GMT), SpaceX will start filling the second stage with its liquid oxygen supply.

In the final 10 minutes of the countdown, the Falcon 9 will begin chilling its engine plumbing for ignition, activate and check out its hydraulic systems, and pressurize its cryogenic propellant tanks for flight.

Nine Merlin 1D engines will flash to life at the base of the Falcon 9 rocket, and hold-down clamps will open to allow the launcher to fly away from pad 39A at 1:12 a.m. EDT (0512 GMT).

Heading northeast over the Atlantic Ocean, the Falcon 9 will surpass the speed of sound before shutting down its first stage engines at T+plus 2 minutes, 32 seconds. Four seconds later, the booster will separate to begin a controlled descent toward SpaceX’s drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” parked in the Atlantic Ocean nearly 400 miles (about 630 kilometers) downrange from Cape Canaveral.

The booster will target a propulsive landing on the floating platform nearly eight-and-a-half minutes into the mission.

Meanwhile, the Falcon 9’s second stage will ignite its single powerful Merlin 1D engine at T+plus 2 minutes, 44 seconds, to drive the 57 Starlink satellites and two BlackSky payloads into a preliminary orbit.

The second stage engine will shut down at T+plus 8 minutes, 51 seconds, to begin a coast halfway around the world before reigniting for a few seconds at T+plus 47 minutes, 18 seconds.

That will inject the Starlink and BlackSky satellites into a near-circular orbit ranging in altitude between 241 miles (388 kilometers) and 249 miles (401 kilometers) above Earth, with an inclination of 53 degrees to the equator.

The two BlackSky satellites will deploy from the top of the stack of Starlink satellites 61 and 66 minutes after liftoff.

BlackSky, based in Seattle, is deploying a fleet of Earth observation satellites designed to monitor changes across Earth’s surface, feeding near real-time geospatial intelligence data to governments and corporate clients. The two 121-pound (55-kilogram) satellites on Friday’s mission will become the fifth and sixth operational spacecraft in BlackSky’s fleet, which the company could eventually number more than 50 satellites, depending on customer demand.

The deployment of the BlackSky payloads will set the stage for separation of the 57 Starlink spacecraft at T+plus 1 hour, 33 minutes, or at 2:45 a.m. EDT (0645 GMT).

SpaceX’s Starlink network is designed to provide low-latency, high-speed Internet service around the world. SpaceX has launched 538 flat-panel Starlink spacecraft since beginning full-scale deployment of the orbital network in May 2019, making the company the owner of the world’s largest fleet of satellites.

With Friday’s launch, SpaceX will have delivered 595 Starlink satellites to orbit since May 2019.

SpaceX plans to debut a new sunshade structure on its future Starlink satellites. Credit: SpaceX

Each of the flat-panel satellites weighs about a quarter-ton, and are built by SpaceX in Redmond, Washington. Once in orbit, they will deploy solar panels to begin producing electricity, then activate their krypton ion thrusters to raise their altitude to around 341 miles, or 550 kilometers.

SpaceX says it needs 24 launches to provide Starlink Internet coverage over nearly all of the populated world, and 12 launches could enable coverage of higher latitude regions, such as Canada and the northern United States.

The launch Friday will be the 10th mission to carry Starlink satellites into orbit, but the Starlink spacecraft deployed on the network’s first dedicated launch were designed to demonstrate satellite and payload performance. SpaceX has not said if any of those satellites might be incorporated into the operational fleet.

The Falcon 9 rocket can loft up to 60 Starlink satellites — each weighing about a quarter-ton — on a single Falcon 9 launch. But launches with secondary payloads, such as BlackSky’s new Earth-imaging satellites, can carry fewer Starlinks to allow the rideshare passengers room to fit on the rocket.

The initial phase of the Starlink network will number 1,584 satellites, according to SpaceX’s regulatory filings with the Federal Communications Commission. But SpaceX plans launch thousands more satellites, depending on market demand, and the company has regulatory approval from the FCC to operate up to 12,000 Starlink relay nodes in low Earth orbit.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, says the Starlink network could earn revenue to fund the company’s ambition for interplanetary space travel, and eventually establish a human settlement on Mars.

SpaceX fans sleuthing through coding on the Starlink website last month found images of a prototype version of the antenna consumers will use to connect to the Internet network.

Musk responded to the tweet, writing the the Starlink ground terminal “has motors to self-orient for optimal view angle. No expert installer required.”

SpaceX has not released pricing information for the Starlink service.

SpaceX says it will soon begin “beta testing” using the Starlink network. The company is collecting email information and mailing addresses from prospective customers, and SpaceX says it will provide updates on Starlink news and service availability to those who sign up.

The beta testing is expected to begin for users living at higher latitudes — such as the northern United States and southern Canada — where the partially-complete Starlink satellite fleet can provide more consistent service. SpaceX will send a Starlink kit including a small antenna, router and other equipment to people selected for beta testing.

Astronomers have raised concerns about the brightness of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, and other companies that plan to launch large numbers of broadband satellites into low Earth orbit.

The Starlink satellites are brighter than expected, and are visible in trains soon after each launch, before spreading out and dimming as they travel higher above Earth.

SpaceX introduced a darker coating on a Starlink satellite launched in January in a bid to reduce the amount of sunlight the spacecraft reflects down to Earth. That offered some improvement, but not enough for ultra-sensitive observatories like the U.S government-funded Vera Rubin Observatory in Chile, which will collect all-sky images to study distant galaxies, stars, and search for potentially dangerous asteroids close to Earth.

SpaceX launched a satellite June 3 with a new unfolding radio-transparent sunshade to block sunlight from reaching bright surfaces on the spacecraft, such as its antennas. SpaceX says all Starlink satellites beginning with the spacecraft on the launch Friday will carry the sunshades.

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Live coverage: SpaceX poised for midday launch from Kennedy Space Center

Live coverage of the countdown and launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The mission will launch SpaceX’s tenth batch of Starlink broadband satellites. Text updates will appear automatically below. Follow us on Twitter.

Spaceflight Now members can watch a live view of the pad. Join now.

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SpaceX’s next batch of Starlink satellites back on the launch pad

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket stands vertical Tuesday on pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Spaceflight Now

SpaceX raised a Falcon 9 rocket vertical Tuesday on pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, positioning the launch vehicle for a flight Wednesday carrying 57 more Starlink Internet satellites and two commercial Earth-imaging microsatellites for BlackSky.

The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) launcher was supposed to take off last month, but SpaceX called off a launch attempt June 26. The company said the “team needed additional time for pre-launch checkouts.”

In the end, SpaceX delayed the launch 12 days, and the company opted to shuffle order of its launches.

A Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched June 30 from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station — a few miles to the south of pad 39A — with a U.S. military GPS navigation satellite. The Falcon 9 rocket loaded with the Starlink and BlackSky satellites rolled back to its hangar near pad 39A to await the mission’s next launch opportunity.

With the Falcon 9 standing atop pad 39A again Tuesday, SpaceX’s launch team planned perform final checkouts on the rocket and commence the countdown early Wednesday.

The Falcon 9 will be filled with super-chilled, densified kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants beginning around 35 minutes prior to liftoff, which is timed for precisely 11:59:11 a.m. EDT (1559:11 GMT) Wednesday.

There’s a 60 percent chance of acceptable weather for a midday launch Wednesday, according to the U.S. Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron. Central Florida is in a typical summertime pattern of strong afternoon and evening thunderstorms, but forecasters said Tuesday that the latest computer model runs suggested storms may develop a bit earlier in the day Wednesday.

“While the launch window’s timeframe is still more favorable than later in the afternoon, some showers and storms moving in from the northwest cannot be ruled out,” forecasters wrote. “Because of this, the primary concern for the launch window is the cumulus cloud rule and the surface electric field rule.”

If the weather conditions cooperate, nine Merlin engines will build up to produce 1.7 million pounds of thrust, driving the Falcon 9 launcher toward the northeast from Florida’s Space Coast on the way to an orbit inclined 53 degrees to the equator.

The first stage booster launching Wednesday will make its fifth trip to space. It first flew from the Kennedy Space Center in March 2019 on an unpiloted test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, then launched again from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in June 2019 with three Canadian radar observation satellites.

The reusable booster also launched two Starlink missions from Florida earlier this year, according to SpaceX.

The first stage’s nine engines will fire for around two-and-a-half minutes during launch, then the booster will fall away from the Falcon 9’s upper stage. The booster will deploy four titanium grid fins for aerodynamic stability, and then fire three of its engines for a burn to target landing on SpaceX’s drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” holding position in the Atlantic Ocean around 400 miles (630 kilometers) northeast of Cape Canaveral.

A final burn of the first stage’s center engine, followed by lowering of the booster’s four landing legs, will set up the rocket for touchdown on the floating landing vessel nearly eight-and-a-half minutes after liftoff. If the rocket sticks the landing, SpaceX will bring the booster back to Port Canaveral for inspections and refurbishment ahead of another flight.

File photo of a stack of Starlink satellites before a previous mission. Credit: SpaceX

While the first stage descends back to Earth from the edge of space, the Falcon 9’s single-use upper stage will ignite its vacuum-rated Merlin engine to propel the mission’s 59 satellite payloads into orbit.

The rocket’s payload fairing, which protects the satellites during the initial phases of launch, will jettison from the Falcon 9 at T+plus 3 minutes, 24 seconds. SpaceX’s two fairing recovery boats, named Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief, are on station in the Atlantic Ocean to retrieve the two fairing halves after they fall to Earth under parachutes.

The upper stage will shut down its engine at T+plus 8 minutes, 51 seconds, after reaching a preliminary parking orbit. A second firing of the Merlin upper stage engine more than 47 minutes after liftoff will place the 59 satellites into a near-circular orbit ranging as high as an altitude of 249 miles (401 kilometers).

The two BlackSky satellites fastened on top of the 57 Starlink satellites will be the first payloads to deploy from the Falcon 9 rocket at T+plus 61 minutes and T+plus 66 minutes.

The Falcon 9 will next release retention rods holding the Starlink satellites to the rocket, allowing the flat-panel broadband relay stations to fly away from the launch vehicle around 1 hour, 33 minutes, after liftoff,

SpaceX’s Starlink network is designed to provide low-latency, high-speed Internet service around the world. SpaceX has launched 538 flat-panel Starlink spacecraft since beginning full-scale deployment of the orbital network in May 2019, making the company the owner of the world’s largest fleet of satellites.

With Wednesday’s launch, SpaceX will have delivered 595 Starlink satellites to orbit in the last 14 months.

Each of the flat-panel satellites weighs about a quarter-ton, and are built by SpaceX in Redmond, Washington. Once in orbit, they will deploy solar panels to begin producing electricity, then activate their krypton ion thrusters to raise their altitude to around 341 miles, or 550 kilometers.

SpaceX says it needs 24 launches to provide Starlink Internet coverage over nearly all of the populated world, and 12 launches could enable coverage of higher latitude regions, such as Canada and the northern United States.

The Falcon 9 can loft up to 60 Starlink satellites — each weighing about a quarter-ton — on a single Falcon 9 launch. But launches with secondary payloads, such as BlackSky’s new Earth-imaging satellites, can carry fewer Starlinks to allow the rideshare passengers room to fit on the rocket.

The initial phase of the Starlink network will number 1,584 satellites, according to SpaceX’s regulatory filings with the Federal Communications Commission. But SpaceX plans launch thousands more satellites, depending on market demand, and the company has regulatory approval from the FCC to operate up to 12,000 Starlink relay nodes in low Earth orbit.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, says the Starlink network could earn revenue to fund the company’s ambition for interplanetary space travel, and eventually establish a human settlement on Mars.

BlackSky’s fifth and sixth operational Earth-imaging satellites are pictured inside a SpaceX processing facility at Cape Canaveral. Credit: SpaceX

But astronomers have raised concerns about the brightness of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, and other companies that plan to launch large numbers of broadband satellites into low Earth orbit.

The Starlink satellites are brighter than expected, and are visible in trains soon after each launch, before spreading out and dimming as they travel higher above Earth.

SpaceX introduced a darker coating on a Starlink satellite launched in January in a bid to reduce the amount of sunlight the spacecraft reflects down to Earth. That offered some improvement, but not enough for ultra-sensitive observatories like the U.S government-funded Vera Rubin Observatory in Chile, which will collect all-sky images to study distant galaxies, stars, and search for potentially dangerous asteroids close to Earth.

SpaceX launched a satellite June 3 with a new unfolding radio-transparent sunshade to block sunlight from reaching bright surfaces on the spacecraft, such as its antennas.

All Starlink satellites beginning with the launch scheduled for Wednesday will carry the sunshade modification to reduce each spacecraft’s optical reflectivity.

BlackSky, based in Seattle, is deploying a fleet of Earth observation satellites designed to monitor changes across Earth’s surface, feeding near real-time geospatial intelligence data to governments and corporate clients. The company’s next two satellites set for launch Wednesday are the first off a new assembly line designed to produce spacecraft at a rate of one to two per month.

The BlackSky satellites set for launch Wednesday are designated Global 7 and Global 8, but they are actually the fifth and sixth operational satellites in the BlackSky fleet.

Scott Herman, BlackSky’s chief technology officer, said the company is comfortable working with SpaceX. Spaceflight Industries, BlackSky’s parent company, has arranged rideshare missions on Falcon 9 rockets for other customers, and BlackSky’s Global 2 satellite launched on a Falcon 9 flight in 2018.

“We’ve been working with SpaceX for a long time,” Herman said. “We do work with others — the Indian space agency and Rocket Lab — but we’ve had a pretty deep relationship with SpaceX, and we’re one of their largest customers outside the U.S. government because of all the different rides we’ve been brokering.”

The BlackSky satellites launching Friday are the first produced by LeoStella, a joint venture between Spaceflight Industries and Thales Alenia Space, a major European satellite manufacturer. LeoStella’s production facility is located in Tukwila, Washington, a suburb of Seattle.

Read more about the BlackSky satellites in our earlier story.

The BlackSky spacecraft each weigh around 121 pounds, or 55 kilograms. They have electrothermal propulsion systems that use water as a propellant.

Each of the current generation of BlackSky Global spacecraft can capture up to 1,000 color images per day, with a resolution of about 3 feet (1 meter).

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SpaceX delays Starlink launch until no earlier than Sunday

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket stands vertical on pad 39A Friday at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Spaceflight Now

SpaceX scrubbed the planned launch from the Kennedy Space Center of a Falcon 9 rocket Friday with the company’s next 57 Starlink Internet satellites and a pair of commercial Earth-imaging surveillance satellites. Officials did not immediately confirm a new target launch date, but SpaceX is expected to try again as soon as Sunday.

Launch crews at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida were counting down to liftoff of a 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 rocket at 4:18 p.m. EDT (2018 GMT) Friday from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, but officials said the launch would be postponed a few hours before the scheduled liftoff time.

In a tweet, SpaceX said it was “standing down from today’s Starlink mission.” The company said its “team needed additional time for pre-launch checkouts, but Falcon 9 and the satellites are healthy.”

SpaceX said it will announce a new target launch date once confirmed by the U.S. Space Force’s Eastern Range, which provides launch support for all space missions taking off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the Kennedy Space Center.

The schedule slip sets the stage for two Falcon 9 launches from different pads at Cape Canaveral in the coming days.

SpaceX is preparing to launch a Falcon 9 rocket from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral on Tuesday at 3:55 p.m. EDT (1955 GMT) with the U.S. military’s next GPS navigation satellite.

In a conference call with reporters Friday to discuss the GPS launch, a SpaceX official said the company was still evaluating when the Falcon 9 rocket with the Starlink broadband satellites and BlackSky Earth-imaging payloads might be ready to fly.

An updated airspace warning notice posted on a Federal Aviation Administration website late Friday suggested SpaceX might try again to launch the Starlink/BlackSky rideshare mission Sunday.

If the Starlink launch is ready to go within a few days, SpaceX might elect to go forward with that mission before the GPS launch Tuesday. The notice to pilots released Friday suggests SpaceX aims to do just that.

In the event of a further delay, managers are expected to prioritize the GPS launch Tuesday because the mission is for the U.S. Space Force, a key customer for SpaceX. SpaceX did not disclose the reason for the launch delay Friday, but the issue takes more than a few days to resolve, the Starlink launch could be pushed back until after the GPS launch.

Lee Rosen, SpaceX’s vice president of customer operations and integration, said Friday that SpaceX could perform two launches from different pads at Cape Canaveral in relatively short order. He said SpaceX could go forward with another Falcon 9 launch after a review of data from the previous mission, which he said typically takes from a half-day to one day to complete.

Launch companies usually examine flight data from all launches to look for close calls or any other unusual behavior that might impact future missions.

Brig. Gen. Doug Schiess, commander of the 45th Space Wing, said the Eastern Range would also likely be able to support two Falcon 9 launches within 24 hours of each other, if necessary.

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SpaceX rideshare provides new path to orbit for BlackSky

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket set to launch the next 57 Starlink satellites and two BlackSky microsatellites stands on pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Spaceflight Now

Despite a growing number of rocket options, the availability of on-time launch services remains a key factor in getting BlackSky’s constellation of Earth-imaging smallsats into orbit. SpaceX’s rideshare launch service will give BlackSky a chance to add two more spacecraft to its fleet Friday on a Falcon 9 rocket with the next batch of Starlink Internet payloads.

BlackSky, based in Seattle, is deploying a fleet of Earth observation satellites designed to monitor changes across Earth’s surface, feeding near real-time geospatial intelligence data to governments and corporate clients.

Scott Herman, BlackSky’s chief technology officer, said this week that the company’s next two satellites are the first off a new assembly line designed to produce spacecraft at a rate of one to two per month. The identical satellites are set for launch at 4:18:02 p.m. EDT (2018:02 GMT) Friday on a Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

There’s a 70 percent chance of good weather for launch Friday from Florida’s Space Coast, according to the U.S. Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron.

BlackSky is one of several companies developing fleets of small Earth-imaging satellites. Another is Planet, which started on its development before BlackSky and operates more than 100 medium-resolution CubeSats, and 18 bigger SkySat spacecraft with sharper vision.

Planet launched its three newest SkySats as piggyback payloads on a Falcon 9/Starlink launch earlier this month. Like BlackSky, Planet was attracted by SpaceX’s regular launch cadence. Friday’s mission will be SpaceX’s 11th launch of the year, and the eighth SpaceX launch for the Starlink network so far in 2020.

“Probably the biggest dependency on getting the satellites up is the launch schedule,” Herman said. “Because we have this production line cranking the satellites out, it’s really about can we secure the ride that we need, and will those rides stay on schedule. To manage that risk, we use a variety of suppliers, not just SpaceX. We work with the Indian space agency, we we work with Rocket Lab. We’re keeping a close eye on some of the emerging players like Virgin Orbit, Firefly and others, so that we can not only kind of diversify our risk, but increase our cadence of launches and get some more confidence in our launch schedules.”

The BlackSky satellites set for launch Friday are designated Global 7 and Global 8, but they are actually the fifth and sixth operational satellites in the BlackSky fleet.

Herman said BlackSky is comfortable working with SpaceX. Spaceflight Industries, BlackSky’s parent company, has arranged rideshare missions on Falcon 9 rockets for other customers, and the Global 2 satellite launched on a Falcon 9 flight in 2018.

We’ve been working with SpaceX for a long time,” Herman said. “We do work with others — the Indian space agency and Rocket Lab — but we’ve had a pretty deep relationship with SpaceX, and we’re one of their largest customers outside the U.S. government because of all the different rides we’ve been brokering.”

BlackSky’s fifth and sixth operational Earth-imaging satellites are pictured inside a SpaceX processing facility at Cape Canaveral, mounted on top of a stack of Starlink satellites. Credit: SpaceX

The BlackSky satellites launching Friday are the first produced by LeoStella, a joint venture between Spaceflight Industries and Thales Alenia Space, a major European satellite manufacturer. LeoStella’s production facility is located in Tukwila, Washington, a suburb of Seattle.

The BlackSky spacecraft each weigh around 121 pounds, or 55 kilograms. They have electrothermal propulsion systems that use water as a propellant.

The first four BlackSky Global satellites, which the company built in-house, launched on Indian PSLV, Falcon 9, and Rocket Lab Electron rockets in 2018 and 2019. Two of them launched into polar orbits for global imaging coverage, and two fly in mid-inclination orbits, similar to the pair of BlackSky platforms launching Friday.

BlackSky’s first tech demo pathfinder satellite launched in 2016.

Each of the current generation of BlackSky Global spacecraft can capture up to 1,000 color images per day, with a resolution of about 3 feet (1 meter).

“What we’re doing with the satellites is a little different than what has historically been the commercial remote sensing mission,” Herman said. “Historically, it’s been about mapping missions and getting wider coverage every few years or every few months. What we’re trying to do is build a constellation of satellites — a swarm of satellites — that really allow us to have very high revisit and to have capacity to handle lots and lots of different customer requests, and to be able to collect around the day with dawn to dusk collection.”

Herman said the two satellites launching Friday are the first of BlackSky’s “Generation 2.1” spacecraft. Engineers have introduced refined optics, software, and an improved communications system. In the future, BlackSky will deploy a third generation of BlackSky satellites with sharper resolution level of about 20 inches, or 50 centimeters.

“These next two coming off are a next iteration, basically a version upgrade when you think of it from a software perspective, and they’re based on this assembly line that’s now cranking out these satellites at a rate of about one to two per month,” Herman said. “So this is the beginning of a much faster cadence of getting more and more satellites up and deployed into the constellation.”

“The next two satellites going up are a really important part of that,” he said in an interview with Spaceflight Now. “While we are certainly collecting imagery and doing analytics and doing global monitoring today, each satellite that is added to the constellation gives us more revisit, more capacity, and the ability to service more customers.

“The good news is to move toward our objective architecture of 16 to 24 satellites, we don’t have to wait until we’re all there to achieve critical mass,” Herman said. “It’s not like some of the Internet constellations going, where you need to get a whole bunch of them up before you can even turn the service on. For us, this is an incremental increase in capability, but every satellite we put up provides a pretty dramatic stair-step increase in capability.”

BlackSky could eventually scale up its fleet to 50 or 60 satellites, Herman said, depending on customer demand.

The National Reconnaissance Office, which owns the U.S. government’s spy satellites, awarded study contracts to BlackSky, Planet and Maxar last year to allow government analysts to evaluate the utility of commercial imagery in intelligence-gathering and overhead surveillance.

“Servicing the U.S. government with a site monitoring or an activity monitoring mission is super important,” Herman said.

BlackSky also sees foreign governments, which may not field their own reconnaissance satellites, large multinational companies and the financial industry as other key customers.

Later this year, BlackSky has satellites booked to launch on India’s new Small Satellite Launch Vehicle, or SSLV. But the launch date for that mission, originally scheduled for last year, remains in flux amid development delays on the SSLV, which has not yet flown. The COVID-19 pandemic has also slowed progress on space development in India in recent months.

Herman said BlackSky also plans to launch satellites on Rocket Lab and SpaceX missions later this year. The company says it has eight satellites scheduled for launch before the end of 2020, including the pair launching Friday. But that assumes launch vehicles and spacecraft production don’t face delays.

SpaceX has published pricing information for its smallsat rideshare service. According to SpaceX’s website, the company charges $1 million to launch a 440-pound (200-kilogram) satellite on a rideshare mission. That’s significantly lower than any other launch provider, including small satellite launchers like Rocket Lab’s Electron.

But Rocket Lab and other companies can carry small satellites into orbit on dedicated rides, giving operators more flexibility to choose their altitude and inclination.

SpaceX says all Starlink satellites beginning with the batch launching Friday are equipped with new sunshades to reduce their brightness. Credit: SpaceX

The BlackSky satellites launching Friday are stacked on top of an array of 57 Starlink satellites inside the Falcon 9 rocket’s payload shroud.

SpaceX’s Starlink network is designed to provide low-latency, high-speed Internet service around the world. SpaceX has launched 538 flat-panel Starlink spacecraft since beginning full-scale deployment of the orbital network in May 2019, making the company the owner of the world’s largest fleet of satellites.

With Friday’s launch, SpaceX will have delivered 595 Starlink satellites to orbit in the last 13 months.

Each of the flat-panel satellites weighs about a quarter-ton, and are built by SpaceX in Redmond, Washington. Once in orbit, they will deploy solar panels to begin producing electricity, then activate their krypton ion thrusters to raise their altitude to around 341 miles, or 550 kilometers.

The Falcon 9 is targeting deployment of the Starlink and BlackSky satellites Friday in a nearly circular orbit ranging as high as an altitude of 249 miles (401 kilometers), with an inclination of 53 degrees to the equator.

That’s a change from the most recent Starlink launches, when SpaceX placed the satellites into a lower, more egg-shaped orbit after separation from the Falcon 9 rocket. That meant the satellites were closer Earth when they began orbit-raising to their operational altitude, where they will use their antennas to begin signals testing in SpaceX’s Starlink network.

SpaceX says it needs 24 launches to provide Starlink Internet coverage over nearly all of the populated world, and 12 launches could enable coverage of higher latitude regions, such as Canada and the northern United States.

The Falcon 9 can loft up to 60 Starlink satellites — each weighing about a quarter-ton — on a single Falcon 9 launch. But launches with secondary payloads, such as BlackSky’s new Earth-imaging satellites, can carry fewer Starlinks to allow the rideshare passengers room to fit on the rocket.

The initial phase of the Starlink network will number 1,584 satellites, according to SpaceX’s regulatory filings with the Federal Communications Commission. But SpaceX plans launch thousands more satellites, depending on market demand, and the company has regulatory approval from the FCC to operate up to 12,000 Starlink relay nodes in low Earth orbit.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, says the Starlink network could earn revenue to fund the company’s ambition for interplanetary space travel, and eventually establish a human settlement on Mars.

A view of the 60 Starlink satellites stacked before a previous launch. Credit: SpaceX

But astronomers have raised concerns about the brightness of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, and other companies that plan to launch large numbers of broadband satellites into low Earth orbit.

The Starlink satellites are brighter than expected, and are visible in trains soon after each launch, before spreading out and dimming as they travel higher above Earth.

SpaceX introduced a darker coating on a Starlink satellite launched in January in a bid to reduce the amount of sunlight the spacecraft reflects down to Earth. That offered some improvement, but not enough for ultra-sensitive observatories like the U.S government-funded Vera Rubin Observatory in Chile, which will collect all-sky images to study distant galaxies, stars, and search for potentially dangerous asteroids close to Earth.

SpaceX launched a satellite June 3 with a new unfolding radio-transparent sunshade to block sunlight from reaching bright surfaces on the spacecraft, such as its antennas.

Earlier this month, SpaceX said all Starlink satellites beginning with the launch scheduled for Friday will carry the sunshades.

Coupled with changes in how the satellites are oriented when they are at lower altitudes soon after launch, the sun visors could alleviate the most serious impacts on astronomy from the Starlink network, and eliminate the Starlink satellites from naked eye vision once they reach their 341-mile-high operational orbit.

The Vera Rubin Observatory’s 3,200-megapixel camera will start astronomical surveys in 2022. Each image will cover a region of the sky the size of 40 full moons, and many of the images will include light streaks left by satellites from the Starlink network, and potentially other satellite constellations.

The worst impacts will come after dusk and before dawn. That’s a time of day when astronomers want to search for asteroids.

Astronomers on the Vega Rubin Observatory team say SpaceX has been working with them since last year to try to reduce the impacts of the Starlink network on their scientific program.

“SpaceX is setting an example for the rest of the industry by doing all of this work to try to darken the satellites,” said Tony Tyson, a professor of physics at the University of California, Davis.

“The Vera Rubin Observatory is actually a limiting case,” said Tyson, the chief scientist on the Vera Rubin Observatory. “The reason why it’s a limiting case (is because) it was built to find something unusual in the sky. It’s the perfect machine unfortunately for running into satellite trails.”

Astronomers illuminated a Vera Rubin imaging detector in a test to see how it would respond to the passage of a satellite as bright as a Starlink. They found the satellite leaves behind not just a single trail, but “ghost” trails away from the spacecraft’s path.

“We have been developing software to try to mitigate these affects, but it only has a (limited) dynamic range,” Tyson said. “The software only begins to work if we could dim these low Earth orbit satellites to something like 7th apparent magnitude. That’s beynd the limit of human vision.”

The spacecraft with the darker coating was measured at 6.1 magnitude once it flew into a higher orbit after launch. SpaceX and astronomers won’t know how effective the visor is at darkening the satellites from the ground until the first sunshade-equipped spacecraft, dubbed VisorSat, reaches its operational altitude of 341 miles.

“We need to get to 7th magnitude,” Tyson said. “VisorSat might actually reach 7. We won’t know for a few months yet, and that’s at 550 kilometers (341 miles) … If it can be darkened to 7th magnitude, then our software would begin to get rid of these electronic ghosts … But it won’t get rid of the main trail.”

“Even if all of this works, the satellite (main) trails will clearly still be there in the data, seriously complicating data analysis and limiting discoveries,” Tyson said.

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Live coverage: SpaceX launch on schedule for Friday afternoon

Live coverage of the countdown and launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The mission will launch SpaceX’s tenth batch of Starlink broadband satellites. Text updates will appear automatically below. Follow us on Twitter.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket test-fired its engines at 6:30 p.m. EDT (2230 GMT) Wednesday. Credit: Spaceflight Now

Spaceflight Now members can watch a live view of the pad. Join now.

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aerospace astronomy BlackSky Global BlackSky Global 7 BlackSky Global 8 Broadband Commerical Space Earth observation falcon 9 kennedy space center Launch Launch Pad 39A LeoStella Mission Reports News Reusability rideshare spacex starlink Starlink 9 Static Fire Telecom X Home Page Highlight Below Right

SpaceX gearing up for another launch of Starlink broadband satellites this week

File photo of a Falcon 9 launch. Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now

For the third time in three weeks, SpaceX is preparing to launch a batch of satellites for the company’s Starlink Internet network from Florida’s Space Coast. Liftoff of a Falcon 9 rocket is set for Thursday afternoon from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, weather permitting.

Liftoff of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled for Thursday at 4:39 p.m. EDT (2039 GMT), and two commercial Earth-imaging microsatellites owned by BlackSky will accompany the Starlink payloads into orbit.

The launch Thursday will be SpaceX’s fourth Falcon 9 mission in less than four weeks, continuing a whirlwind cadence of launches that began May 30 with the liftoff of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken into orbit.

SpaceX launched another Falcon 9 rocket June 3 with 60 Starlink satellites, and most recently delivered another 58 Starlink payloads into orbit with a Falcon 9 rocket June 13 on a flight that also carried three commercial SkySat Earth-imaging satellites to space for Planet.

Thursday’s mission will be SpaceX’s 11th launch of 2020, and will be followed by another Falcon 9 launch scheduled June 30 from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station with the U.S. Space Force’s next GPS navigation satellite.

The launch June 30 is scheduled for a 15-minute window opening at 3:55 p.m. EDT (1955 GMT).

SpaceX plans to test-fire the rockets for its next two missions this week. The previously-flown Falcon 9 rocket assigned to the Starlink/BlackSky launch is scheduled for a hold-down test-firing of its nine Merlin main engines Wednesday at pad 39A.

A test-firing of the brand new Falcon 9 booster for the GPS launch is scheduled later this week on pad 40, perhaps as soon as Thursday.

Forecasters predict typical summertime weather on Florida’s Space Coast for Thursday afternoon. There’s a 60 percent chance weather conditions could violate the Falcon 9’s liftoff weather constraints at launch time Thursday, according to an outlook issued Tuesday by the Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron.

The weather pattern over the next several days on the Space Coast “will favor afternoon showers and thunderstorms with daytime heating and the prevailing offshore flow,” forecasters wrote Tuesday. “The east coast sea breeze will remain closer to the coast, and the west coast sea breeze will move across the peninsula. Mid to upper level westerly steering flow will also help push showers and storms, along with their associated anvils, back towards the east coast.”

The main weather concerns for Thursday’s launch opportunity will be with the potential for violating the cumulus cloud, anvil cloud and lightning rules.

There’s some slight improvement in the forecast for a backup launch opportunity Friday afternoon, when there’s a 40 percent chance of weather violating launch criteria.

Artist’s concept of a Starlink satellite with its solar array wing unfurled. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX’s Starlink network is designed to provide low-latency, high-speed Internet service around the world. SpaceX has launched 538 flat-panel Starlink spacecraft since beginning full-scale deployment of the orbital network in May 2019, making the company the owner of the world’s largest fleet of satellites.

SpaceX says it needs 24 launches to provide Starlink Internet coverage over nearly all of the populated world, and 12 launches could enable coverage of higher latitude regions, such as Canada and the northern United States.

The Falcon 9 can loft up to 60 Starlink satellites — each weighing about a quarter-ton — on a single Falcon 9 launch. But launches with secondary payloads, such as BlackSky’s new Earth-imaging satellites, can carry fewer Starlinks to allow the rideshare passengers room to fit on the rocket.

The initial phase of the Starlink network will number 1,584 satellites, according to SpaceX’s regulatory filings with the Federal Communications Commission. But SpaceX plans launch thousands more satellites, depending on market demand, and the company has regulatory approval from the FCC to operate up to 12,000 Starlink relay nodes in low Earth orbit.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, says the Starlink network could earn revenue to fund the company’s ambition for interplanetary space travel, and eventually establish a human settlement on Mars.

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.