SpaceX launches fifth batch of Starlink satellites, misses booster landing

by

WASHINGTON — SpaceX completed its fifth dedicated Starlink launch Feb. 17, successfully sending 60 satellites into low Earth orbit while missing what would have been the company’s 50th booster recovery. 

A Falcon 9 rocket lifted off at 10:05 a.m. Eastern from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, on a mission profile that differed from past Starlink launches.

Instead of deploying the satellites into a circular orbit as it had done on all four dedicated Starlink launches, Falcon 9 released Starlink’s fifth batch of broadband satellites into the lower end of an elliptical orbit about 15 minutes after liftoff, eliminating the need to fire the rocket’s upper stage a second time. 

SpaceX said all 60 satellites were deployed at an altitude of 227 kilometers and will use onboard electric propulsion to reach their target 550-kilometer circular orbit. 

The lower deployment altitude SpaceX used Feb. 17 is about 70 kilometers below the drop-off point used for the three most recent missions and more than 200 kilometers below last May’s first dedicated Starlink deployment. 

Future Starlink launches will continue to use the lower drop-off point in order to shorten the mission and ease the load on the rocket, Jessie Anderson, a lead manufacturing engineer at SpaceX, said while co-narrating the launch.

Despite the reduced workload, Falcon 9’s reusable first-stage booster missed the droneship “Of Course I Still Love You,” splashing down nearby in the Atlantic Ocean. 

SpaceX used the same booster for three previous missions — two 2019 resupply missions to the International Space Station for NASA, and the December launch of the JCSAT-18/Kacific-1 communications satellite. Lauren Lyons, a Starlink satellite engineer co-narrating the launch, said reusing the booster for the Feb. 17 launch marked SpaceX’s “fastest turnaround to date.”

SpaceX has now launched 302 Starlink satellites, counting two prototypes launched in 2018. The company is targeting 24 Starlink launches this year, and plans on starting regional service in Canada and the northern United States later this year, with near global coverage by 2021.