WASHINGTON — SpaceX continued the deployment of its Starlink broadband megaconstellation May 4 with the second launch of 60 satellites in less than a week.
A Falcon 9 lifted off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A at 3:01 p.m. Eastern. The rocket’s second stage released its payload of 60 Starlink satellites 64 minutes later.
The rocket’s first stage landed on the center of a droneship in the Atlantic Ocean, completing its ninth flight. The booster previously launched the Telstar 18 Vantage communications satellite, a set of Iridium satellites, and six other Starlink missions. This is the second booster SpaceX has flown nine times.
SpaceX had previously suggested Falcon 9 boosters could fly up to 10 times, but more recently indicated those stages could have longer lifetimes. “I don’t think the number 10 is a magic number,” Hans Koenigsmann, senior adviser for build and flight reliability at SpaceX, said in February. Once a booster reaches the 10-flight milestone, “we will continue to look at that booster and make an assessment whether we can move forward with it.”
That milestone could come soon. The next Falcon 9 Starlink launch, scheduled for no earlier than May 9, is expected to use the other Falcon 9 booster that has flown nine times, most recently in March. The company is using its internal Starlink missions to test the limits of booster reusability.
“There doesn’t seem to be any obvious limit to the reusability of the vehicle,” Elon Musk, chief executive of SpaceX, said at an April 23 NASA press conference after the Crew-2 launch. “We do intend to fly the Falcon 9 booster until we some kind of a failure with the Starlink missions, have that be a life-leader.”
This launch comes less than a week after the previous Falcon 9 Starlink launch April 28. Of the 13 Falcon 9 launches so far this year, 10 have been dedicated to Starlink satellites while the eleventh, the Transporter-1 rideshare mission, carried 10 Starlink satellites, bringing the total number of Starlink satellites launched so far in 2021 to 610. Nearly 1,500 Starlink satellites are currently in orbit.
Space is continuing to build out its Starlink constellation, buoyed by a Federal Communications Commission decision April 27 to approve a license modification sought by SpaceX. That modification will allow SpaceX to operate 2,814 satellites originally planned for orbits between 1,100 and 1,300 kilometers to orbits of 540 to 570 kilometers.
The Starlink service remains in a beta test phase in the United States and several other countries, although Musk suggested last month that the beta test could end as soon as this summer as the constellation is built out.
Siva Bharadvaj, the SpaceX engineer who hosted the webcast of this latest launch, said that “over half a million people have placed an order or put down a deposit for Starlink.” He did not disclose how many people are actively using the service, though.