Falcon 9 launches first Starlink mission - heaviest payload launch by SpaceX to date

Published Sunday, May 26, 2019
by Chris Gebhardt

The much-awaited and heralded launch of SpaceX’s Starlink internet satellite constellation launched on Thursday.  With the twice-flown Falcon 9 rocket on SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, SpaceX deployed the first batch of 60 Starlink satellites. The launch was slightly delayed due to unacceptable Upper Level Winds scrubbed the first launch attempt. Then, a week ago, a requirement to update the Starlink software delayed the launch into next week. However, the latest attempt launched without issue at the opening of the window at 10:30 pm Eastern.

Starlink satellite configuration:

A flat and compact design that is “significantly more scalable and capable than its first experimental iteration”, noted SpaceX in the mission’s press kit.

In all, each Starlink satellite is equipped with multiple high-throughput antennas, a single solar array, and (crucially) Hall thrusters powered by krypton – all designed to bring low-latency, high-throughput internet services to every part of the world.

The Hall thrusters will allow each Starlink to independently maintain its orbit, adjust its position, and deorbit at the end of its operational life.

Orbital position, navigation, and precision pointing for each Starlink is enabled in part by a Startracker system that is built upon the same Startracker used by the cargo and crew Dragon spacecrafts developed by SpaceX.

More impressively, the Startracker system will allow each Starlink to independently track on-orbit debris and autonomously fire its Hall thrusters to avoid debris.

 

 

At the end of their lives, this current round of Starlinks will mostly burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, with only 5% of each Starlink surviving atmospheric reentry.

Subsequent generations of Starlinks already under construction will be completely disposable, with 100% of the craft burning up in the atmosphere at the end of its lifetime.

Importantly, while this is the first batch of operational Starlinks to be launched, SpaceX does expect to encounter some issues as the satellites are deployed and brought into operational use.

This is part of SpaceX’s overall philosophy of “design, fly, iterate, fly again” which has served the company well in its development of critical capabilities that just a few years ago were deemed “impossible” or “unfeasible” by the larger spaceflight community.

To this end, any issues encountered with this first round of Starlink satellites will not be classed as failures by SpaceX but rather as areas to learn from that are “key to developing an affordable and reliable broadband service in the future.”

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