SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket completes 57th operational Starlink launch

Falcon 9 booster B1063 is pictured during its third launch. (SpaceX)

For the 57th time, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket has delivered a batch of operational Starlink satellites to low Earth orbit, simultaneously marking the vehicle’s 50th successful launch in 367 days.

Flying for the 7th time, Falcon 9 booster B1063 lifted off with a fresh upper stage and another batch of Starlink V1.5 satellites enclosed in a reused payload fairing at 10:40 pm PDT (05:40 UTC), Tuesday, August 30th. SpaceX’s 57th overall Starlink launch, Starlink 3-4 deployed another 46 satellites into a semi-polar sun-synchronous orbit (SSO), where they will eventually be joined by approximately 520 other spacecraft.

Around nine minutes after liftoff, Falcon 9’s expendable upper stage reached a stable parking orbit and booster B1063 touched down on drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) – SpaceX’s 65th consecutively successful landing and 139th successful landing overall. Falcon 9 launched for the first time in June 2010 and completed its first landing in December 2015.

Starlink 3-4 was also SpaceX’s 148th consecutively successful Falcon 9 launch, the rocket’s 172nd successful launch overall, and the company’s 50th launch in just over a year.

SpaceX began filling out Starlink’s third orbital shell (Group 3) in July 2021. Four launches and seven weeks later, more than half (184) of the shell’s 348 planned satellites are already in orbit, though most of those satellites still need another month or two to reach operational altitudes. The fifth shell of SpaceX’s first Starlink constellation – populated by another 172 satellites – will eventually be assembled in an almost identical sun-synchronous orbit. Orbiting Earth at an inclination of 97.6 degrees, where 90 degrees would be a perfect polar orbit, Starlink’s SSO satellites will help fill coverage gaps all over the world, but they will be particularly optimal for serving customers at high latitudes – including the Arctic and Antarctic.

Once the constellation’s orbital laser link network is activated, Starlink will even be able to connect customers beyond the reach of the network’s ground stations by routing communications through other satellites until a station is in range. That could be a boon for ultra-remote outposts like those in Antarctica, where the brutal weather, sheer scale of the continent, and small number of residents make it hard to rationalize ground station construction. Semi-polar satellites like those SpaceX launched today will eventually enable a more economical solution.

Following Starlink 3-4, SpaceX now has more than 2900 working Starlink satellites in orbit, representing about 66% of the full 4408-satellite constellation. Astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell estimates that almost 2400 – more than half of the final constellation – have reached operational orbits and are serving customers back on Earth. SpaceX began operational Starlink launches less than three years ago (November 2019). Per FCC regulations, the company was required to launch half of the constellation by March 2024 and finish launching all 4408 satellites by March 2027.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket completes 57th operational Starlink launch
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