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SpaceX Makes Fifth Starlink Launch, But Loses Reusable Falcon 9 Booster

The SpaceX Falcon 9 satellite launch vehicle carrying the fifth batch of Starlink satellites lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on 17 February 2020. Photograph courtesy of SpaceX.

On Monday, 17 February 2020, at 10:05 am EST, or 15:05 UTC, SpaceX launched its fifth Starlink mission from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The Starlink satellites deployed in an elliptical orbit approximately 15 minutes after liftoff. Prior to orbit raise, SpaceX engineers will conduct data reviews to ensure all Starlink satellites are operating as intended. Once the checkouts are complete, the satellites will then use their onboard ion thrusters to move into their intended orbits and operational altitude of 550 km.

Each Starlink satellite weighs approximately 260 kilograms and features a compact, flat-panel design that minimizes volume, allowing for a dense launch stack to take full advantage of Falcon 9’s launch capabilities. With four powerful phased array and two parabolic antennas on each satellite, an enormous amount of throughput can be placed and redirected in a short time, for an order of magnitude lower cost than traditional satellite-based internet, SpaceX claims.

According to SpaceX press materials about Starlink, “SpaceX is leveraging its experience in building rockets and spacecraft to deploy the world’s most advanced broadband internet system. With performance that far surpasses that of traditional satellite internet and a global network unbounded by ground infrastructure limitations, Starlink will deliver high speed broadband internet to locations where access has been unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable.”

SpaceX is also addressing sustainability and space environmental responsibility issues, and says that all of its Starlink satellites are designed to carry out on-orbit debris mitigation once their operational usefulness has expired. SpaceX claims that its satellite design and architecture meets or exceeds “all regulatory and industry standards.”

Once Starlink satellites cease to be operational they will use their on-board propulsion systems to de-orbit and burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere, a process that SpaceX says will take several months per satellite. Should the on-board propulsion system not work, SpaceX claims that the Starlink architecture is designed in such a way that individual satellites at the end of their operational cycle will naturally de-orbit in one to five years. SpaceX also makes clear that all of the components on board Starlink satellites “are designed for full demisability.”

While all of the Starlink satellites on this mission appear to have been successfully launched, the reusable first-stage booster of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle failed to land on its intended unmanned vessel in the Atlantic Ocean, the “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship. This first-stage booster had been previously used on three launches, the CRS-17 in May 2019, the CRS-18 in July 2019, and the launch of the JCSAT-18/Kacific1 communications satellite launch in December 2019.

Starlink is targeting service in the northern United States and Canada in 2020, and expects to expand to near global coverage of the populated world by 2021.

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