SpaceX Starlink launch puts on a spectacular light show on the East Coast

SpaceX's valuation continues to skyrocket after a new funding round substantially increased the company's share price. (Richard Angle)

Through a confluence of orbital dynamics and luck, SpaceX’s seventh Starlink launch of 2020 may have created one of the most spectacular light shows visible across the US East Coast in recent memory.

Likely to incur a massive wave of ‘UFO spottings’ across the Eastern seaboard, Falcon 9 lifted off from a Cape Canaveral, Florida launch pad at 5:21 am EDT (09:21 UTC), a bit less than a half an hour before dawn. Heading east (and up), the 70m (230 ft) tall SpaceX rocket took just three minutes to escape Earth’s shadow and meet the rising sun a bit ahead of the East Coast’s schedule – the light from which instantly backlit the plume created by Falcon 9’s second (upper) stage. Effectively replicating – in reverse – a similar phenomenon often seen after SpaceX West Coast launches shortly after sunset, this is the first time in quite awhile that the stars have (somewhat literally) aligned for a similar light show in Florida.

However, thanks to it taking place more than 150 km (90 mi) above Earth’s surface, the light show produced by predawn sunlight and Merlin Vacuum’s massive exhaust plume was likely visible for hundreds of miles in every direction. Of course, faux-UFO event aside, the mission served a more important purpose for SpaceX, placing the eighth batch of 58 upgraded v1.0 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit and bring the company halfway to achieving a record-breaking four-launch month in June 2020.

Falcon 9 B1059, a flight-proven payload fairing, and a new expendable upper stage launched on SpaceX’s second Starlink mission of the month on June 13th. (Richard Angle)
Falcon 9 streaks into the predawn Florida sky, meeting the sun halfway. (Richard Angle)
B1059 landed for the third time just nine minutes after liftoff. (SpaceX)

In fact, just hours before launch, SpaceX opened access to a web portal allowing anyone to sign up for Starlink news straight from the source and – much more importantly – “[updates on Starlink internet] service availability in your area”. In other words, now is the first time ever that prospective Starlink internet customers can officially express demand and perhaps toss their name into the ring to be considered for the satellite constellation’s first public alpha/beta tests. COO and President Gwynne Shotwell recently revealed that SpaceX could feasibly begin rolling out service to customers around the world as soon as ~840 operational Starlink satellites were in orbit.

Today’s launch was SpaceX’s seventh Starlink mission this year and the second just this month. If things go according to plan, Starlink V1 L9 could launch as early as June 24th, potentially leaving just four or five more launches and their associated orbit-raising periods between now and SpaceX’s initial internet service roll-out. Once this mission’s batch of satellites finish boosting to their final orbits with onboard ion thrusters, SpaceX will have more than 550 operational satellites in orbit – several times more than the next closest competitor.

Orbital sunrise comes early over Falcon 9’s grid fins (left) and a stack of 58 new Starlink satellites (right). (SpaceX)
Three Planet SkySat Earth imaging satellites joined the mission, making it SpaceX’s first Starlink rideshare launch. (SpaceX)

If SpaceX maintains the impressive Starlink launch cadence it appears all but guaranteed to demonstrate this month, the constellation could be ready to enter service as early as August or September. Meanwhile, Starlink V1 L8 also debuted SpaceX’s potentially revolutionary Starlink launch rideshare offering, sending three ~110 kg (250 lb) Planet SkySat imaging satellites on the way to their final orbits for a price so low that the company didn’t initially didn’t believe it could be real.

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Eric Ralph: I write about space, among other things.
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