SpaceX launches pair of its demo internet satellites with Spanish radar satellite

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WASHINGTON — SpaceX on Feb. 22 launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Spanish-owned radar-imaging satellite and two demonstration satellites for SpaceX’s proposed Starlink broadband constellation. The 9:17 a.m. Eastern launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California carried all three spacecraft to low Earth orbit, deploying the PAZ radar satellite 11 minutes after liftoff.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, confirmed successful deployment of the Starlink demo satellites, dubbed TinTin A and B, via Twitter about 80 minutes after liftoff.

“Tintin A & B will attempt to beam “hello world” in about 22 hours when they pass near LA,” Musk tweeted.

The day before launch, Musk said Starlink — a global constellation of 4,500 broadband spacecraft in low-Earth orbit — “will serve [the] least served.”

SpaceX did not attempt to land Falcon 9’s previously flown first stage following the mission but did attempt to recover the rocket’s upgraded fairing using a parafoil and ship equipped with a large catcher’s net.

The fairing, which enshrouds the satellite on the way to orbit, cost $6 million — money SpaceX would like to save if possible.

The clamshell-like fairing halves missed the recovery ship by a few hundred meters, according to Musk, but landed in the ocean intact. “Should be able catch it with slightly bigger chutes to slow down descent,” Musk tweeted.

While much of the interest around the launch centered on SpaceX’s own broadband satellites, the mission brought to an end a long wait by Hisdesat, the Spanish satellite operator who originally paid the Russian-Ukrainian company Kosmotras to launch Paz on a Dnepr rocket four years ago. After three years of delay, Hisdesat switched to SpaceX in 2017 and sued Kosmotras to retrieve 15 million euros ($16 million) in launch payments.

Paz is a 1,400-kilogram synthetic-aperture radar satellite from Airbus Defence and Space that can image up to 300,000 square kilometers of the Earth’s surface each day. The Spanish Aerospace Technology Institute developed the satellite’s ground segment with Madrid-based company Indra.

Hisdesat and Airbus plan to operate Paz with the German TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X radar satellites to form a SAR constellation.

Along with its primary mission, Paz carries two additional payloads. The first is a maritime-focused Automatic Identification System payload that Canadian company exactEarth will use to complete its first-generation ship-tracking constellation. The second is a weather payload called the Radio Occultation and Heavy Precipitation, or ROHP, experiment from the Institute of Space Science del Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas. The instrument will study how measurements of satellite navigation signals passing through Earth’s atmosphere can yield data on powerful storms.