SpaceX launch to record rocket transformation with next Starlink launch – Spaceflight Now 2022-04-29 00:09:11

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lands on a drone ship on April 8 after launching a special Ax-1 crew mission. The same booster will be used again for the Starlink 4-16 West mission to take off on April 29. Credit: SpaceX

With a Friday mission to deploy more Starlink internet satellites, SpaceX will attempt to shave nearly a week off the company’s previous record for the shortest time between two launches of the same Falcon 9 booster.

A Falcon 9 rocket scheduled for Friday’s launch from Cape Canaveral will operate with the first stage launched just 21 days ago, with the Axium astronauts’ special mission to the International Space Station. SpaceX is preparing to break the 27-day record for rocket transformation set last year.

An additional 53 Starlink Internet satellites are installed on top of a Falcon 9 rocket that is set to take off from Panel 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The launch for an immediate opportunity was timed at 5:27 PM EDT (2127 GMT) on Friday. Forecasters from the US Space Force, which operates the launch range at Cape Canaveral, expect an 80% chance of weather suitable for liftoff on Friday afternoon.

The mission – designed with Starlink 4-16 – will be the 151st launch of the Falcon 9 rocket since SpaceX first launched its giant spacecraft on June 4, 2010, and the 43rd Falcon 9 flight primarily intended to carry Starlink Internet stations into orbit. The launch will be SpaceX’s 17th mission of the year, sixth launch of the Falcon 9 in April, and is SpaceX’s largest ever launch in a single month.

SpaceX has ramped up its launch pace this year. Elon Musk, founder and CEO of the company, said SpaceX aims to complete 60 flights of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy in 2022, nearly double the 31 missions completed last year. The rate of launch is maintained through SpaceX’s reuse of rocket boosters and streamlined payloads. Only one of 17 Falcon 9 flights so far this year has used an all-new rocket.

Friday’s mission-flying booster vehicle – its tail B1062 – touched down aboard the SpaceX drone ship “A Shortfall of Gravitas” in the Atlantic Ocean after being launched with the Ax-1 missions. The unmanned ship brought the missile back to port for minor inspections and refurbishments, then SpaceX combined the boost stage with a new second stage and rolled the missile into the hangar on Platform 40.

Inside the hangar, SpaceX technicians mated the rocket with its payload of 53 Starlink satellites, already encased inside a Falcon 9’s nose cap. SpaceX planned to roll the fully assembled Falcon 9 to the platform north of the hangar Thursday, then lift it vertically for final launch settings.

Like most recent Starlink missions, the Falcon 9 will target a semi-circular orbit at an average altitude of 192 miles (310 kilometers) to deploy 53 flat-packed spacecraft, each weighing just over a quarter of a ton.

A group of Starlink satellites deployed from a Falcon 9 rocket on a mission last year. Credit: SpaceX

The Falcon 9 rocket will head northeast from Cape Canaveral with nine Merlin 1D engines running on kerosene fuel and generating 1.7 million pounds of thrust. Two and a half minutes after takeoff, the booster will separate from the second stage and begin its descent back to the “Read Instructions Only” UAV in the Atlantic Ocean east of Carolina.

The booster, on its sixth flight into space, will make an arc at an altitude of approximately 400,000 feet before descending for a vertically propelled landing on the floating platform about eight and a half minutes into launch.

The second stage will ignite its single, vacuum-optimized engine for two burners to put the Starlink satellites into the correct orbit for separation. The Starlink satellites will be deployed to South Australia approximately 59 minutes after the mission.

The Falcon 9 will launch the satellites into an orbit with an inclination of 53.2 degrees to the equator, one of five orbital “shells” used in SpaceX’s global web.

Starlink satellites will extend solar arrays and use onboard ion thrusters to reach their operational orbit at an altitude of 335 miles (540 km), where they will enter commercial service and begin sending broadband signals to consumers.

Starting from Friday’s mission, SpaceX has launched 2,388 Starlink satellites so far, including spacecraft that have either been decommissioned or have experienced failures. More than 2,100 of those satellites are in orbit and operational as of Thursday, according to a list maintained by Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist who tracks spaceflight activity.

This makes Starlink’s fleet of satellites the largest constellation of satellites in the world, nearly five times greater than the fleet of online satellites owned by rival OneWeb.

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