F9 launch
A SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off Jan. 6 carrying 49 Starlink satellites. Credit: SpaceX webcast

WASHINGTON — After setting a record for launch activity in 2021, SpaceX started 2022 with the Falcon 9 launch of a set of Starlink satellites Jan. 6.

The Falcon 9 lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 4:49 p.m. Eastern on a mission designated Starlink 4-5 by SpaceX. Its payload of 49 Starlink satellites separated from the upper stage 15 and a half minutes after liftoff, but because of a lack of ground station coverage, confirmation of the separation did not take place until about an hour later.

The rocket’s first stage landed on a droneship in the Atlantic Ocean near The Bahamas nearly nine minutes after liftoff. The booster completed its fourth flight, having previously been used for two GPS 3 satellite launches and the Inspiration4 commercial Crew Dragon mission.

The launch took an unusual southeastern trajectory, rather than the northeastern trajectory used for previous Starlink launches from Florida. A Space Force official said it was the first of several projected for January that would go on southern, or polar, trajectories.

“The 2022 launch pace is going to be exceptionally busy with up to five polar, and seven total launches, projected for the month of January alone,” Maj. Jonathan Szul, director of operations for the First Range Operations Squadron at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, said in a Jan. 4 statement. “While three polar missions successfully launched in the past year and a half, Cape Canaveral has never had five southern trajectory launches in a single month.”

He did not list the polar launches expected in January beyond Starlink 4-5. One of them is Transporter-3, the dedicated rideshare Falcon 9 launch currently scheduled for Jan. 13. Another is likely the Falcon 9 launch of a Cosmo-Skymed Second Generation radar imaging satellite for the Italian space agency ASI, expected in late January. The other polar launches may be Starlink missions.

The greater use of launches on southern trajectories was a concern for Space Launch Delta 45, the Space Force unit that operates the Eastern Range, because of different airspace and maritime restrictions that pilots and boaters may not be used to. “Due to the unique southerly trajectories, there will be a larger potential impact to air and sea traffic along the southeast coast of Florida,” Szul said.

This first SpaceX launch of 2022 — also the first orbital launch worldwide of the new year — comes after SpaceX set a company record in 2021 with 31 orbital launches, all on Falcon 9 rockets.

SpaceX has not announced a goal for 2022, but in a panel discussion at Euroconsult’s World Satellite Business Week Dec. 13, Tom Ochinero, vice president of commercial sales at SpaceX, said the company’s plans for 2022 included at least three crewed missions and five launches of the Falcon Heavy, which last launched in 2019. “Next year will be more exciting,” he said of 2022.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...