SpaceX’s highly anticipated entrance into the satellite industry kicked off Thursday night with a launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s launch complex 40.
At 10:30 p.m., a Falcon 9 rocket took off with 60 small satellites packed in its fairing, signaling the first launch of SpaceX’s next-generation Starlink constellation. The payload weighed in at 30,000 pounds, making it the heaviest ever launch for Elon Musk’s rocket company.
About eight minutes after liftoff, the first stage booster on the rocket zipped back down to Earth and landed on “Of Course I Still Love You,” the company’s drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean, marking the third successful landing for that particular first stage.
And an hour after the Falcon 9 headed to space, another milestone: The 60 satellites were also successfully deployed, fanning out like a deck of cards in low-Earth orbit.
Starlink has been a longtime effort for SpaceX, which endeavors to create a constellation of satellites that would blanket the globe with high-speed Internet, even in remote areas.
To do that though, there will need to be thousands of Starlink satellites in orbit to provide fast, reliable connectivity. The Federal Communications Commission has approved SpaceX for about 12,000 satellites within its Starlink constellation.
To mitigate concerns that the satellites could contribute to space debris, SpaceX said 95% of the satellites’ components will burn in the Earth’s atmosphere once the satellites reach the end of their life cycles.
But developing the Starlink constellation has been a supremely challenging endeavor, Musk said on a call with reporters this month.
“There is a lot of technology,” Musk said. “This is very hard.”
In fact, SpaceX scrubbed a launch last week to “update satellite software and triple check everything again.”
As the satellites are deployed, the company will monitor how successfully they perform in orbit. Ideally, Musk said SpaceX would like to see about six more launches this year of about 60 satellites each to obtain good connectivity over the United States. Twelve additional launches could get SpaceX moderate global connectivity.
The company plans to use the revenue from the Starlink endeavor to fund some of its other ambitions of setting up a lunar base and going to Mars.