CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX will launch its third Falcon 9 rocket in two weeks Saturday evening (May 15), with the launcher carrying a new fleet of Starlink broadband satellites into space, and you can watch the action live online.
The private spaceflight company will launch 52 Starlink satellites on one of its workhorse rockets, a Falcon 9 dubbed B1058, along with a nanosatellite for Tyvak and a small radar satellite for Capella Space.
The frequent flier is scheduled to blast off from Pad 39A here at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 6:54 p.m. EDT (2054 GMT).
Saturday’s flight is the 15th Falcon 9 mission for SpaceX so far in 2021 — all of which have flown on previously used boosters. The mission, called Starlink 27, is the third such mission to launch this month and follows SpaceX’s latest record-setting flight that blasted off on Sunday (May 9). That flight starred one of SpaceX’s fleet leaders and oldest boosters, B1051, which made its 10th launch and landing — the first in SpaceX’s fleet to do so.
The company debuted a souped-up version of its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket in 2018, with the intent to foster reusability. By adding some new features that would allow the booster to better withstand the stresses of launch, the company said that each Falcon 9 would be able to fly at least 10 times with minimal refurbishment in between launches, and 100 times total.
As the company aims to fill its burgeoning megaconstellation with thousands of broadband satellites, it will continue to push Falcon 9 to the limit, reserving the boosters with the most flights under their belts for its Starlink program. (SpaceX will fly its paying customers on new boosters or those that have minimal flights.)
SpaceX created its Starlink program in hopes of providing high-speed internet access to users around the world, and as a means to help fund its deep space ambitions. The service is targeted to users in rural or remote areas that have little-to-no connectivity, although anyone can use it.
To date, the company has launched more than 1,600 of the flat-paneled satellites into space. SpaceX estimated it would need at least 1,440 satellites in its initial constellation to begin to roll out commercial service. While that hasn’t happened just yet, the company is working towards a commercial rollout later this year.
Before it can offer up commercial service, SpaceX has been busy putting its Starlink program through its paces as part of a now global beta-testing program called “Better than nothing beta.” The company reports that more than 500,000 people have signed up for the service so far.
Prospective users can pay a small deposit sign up for the service now, via the company’s website. However, it could be a few months before the actual service becomes available.
Saturday’s launch marks the 119th flight overall for SpaceX’s 229-foot-tall (70 meters) Falcon 9 booster. The star of the mission is one of SpaceX’s flight leaders: a seven-time veteran Falcon 9 first stage, designated B1058.
This frequent flyer, adorned with NASA’s iconic worm logo, made its debut in 2020 with the launch of two NASA astronauts — Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. Strapped inside a Crew Dragon capsule, the duo blasted off a two-month mission to the International Space Station, as part of the Demo-2 test flight.
As part of NASA’s commercial crew program, their historic flight marked the return of human spaceflight from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center since the end of the shuttle program in 2011. (Previously, NASA relied on Russia to transport its astronauts.)
The booster also launched a communications satellite for South Korea’s military, the largest payload of small satellites ever delivered to orbit, an upgraded cargo Dragon capsule, and is now set to launch its fourth Starlink mission.
If all goes as planned, B1058 will blast off early on Saturday evening and approximately 9 minutes later, will touch down on one of SpaceX’s two drone ships, named “Of Course I Still Love You.” If successful, it will mark the 86th recovery of a first stage booster since the company landed its first one in December 2015.
The weather outlook looks good for Saturday’s liftoff, with forecasters at the 45th Weather Squadron predicting a 70% chance of favorable launch conditions. The concerns are liftoff winds and the potential for cumulus clouds. Officials also say that sea states at the recovery zone look good.
There is a backup launch opportunity, if necessary, on Sunday (May 16), with weather conditions improving slightly.
SpaceX has already deployed its newest recovery vessel, a brightly painted pink and blue ship named Shelia Bordelon. The vessel is charged with retrieving the payload fairings after they fall back to Earth. The fairings make up a protective clamshell-like piece of hardware that protects the payload as the rocket climbs to orbit.
Once the rocket reaches a certain altitude, the fairing pieces are jettisoned and then fall back to Earth. With the help of onboard navigation software and special parachutes, the two pieces will gently land in the Atlantic ocean, where they will be scooped up by the Shelia Bordelon.
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