A Falcon 9 rocket climbs off Platform 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Tuesday night. Credit: SpaceX

The 100th flight of the Falcon 9 rocket delivered 60 satellites into orbit for the SpaceX Starlink network Tuesday night, adding another building block to a planned fleet of thousands of solar-powered satellite relay stations to send broadband connections around the world.

The successful mission late Tuesday also set a new record for SpaceX’s rocket reuse program – a figure that could be broken again within months if SpaceX maintains its frantic launch rhythm. For the first time, the reusable Falcon 9 booster completed its seventh flight into space and back on its Tuesday night flight.

The Falcon 9 rocket fired nine Merlin 1D kerosene engines and took off from Platform 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 9:13:12 PM EST Tuesday (0213: 12 GMT Wednesday). The 229-foot (70 m) rocket launcher blasted through a broken cloud layer above the plate and headed northeast from Cape Canaveral to align with the mission’s target orbital plane within the Starlink network.

The first stage of the 15-story rocket booster fell off the upper stage of the Falcon 9 about two and a half years after takeoff, setting up a tight landing track on the SpaceX drone “Of course I Still Love You” positioned several hundred miles northeast of Cape Canaveral In the atlantic ocean,

The booster – designated B1049 in SpaceX’s missile inventory – re-ignited its center engine for braking maneuvering just before landing, then extended the landing gear before settling onto the drone deck. The seemingly flawless landing permeated the 7th mission of B1049, making it SpaceX ‘fleet commander’.

Elon Musk, Founder and CEO of SpaceX, said the latest version of the Falcon 9 Booster could fly 10 times without any major revamp, and maybe 100 times with periodic repairs.

Together with a reused first-stage booster, the Falcon 9 was launched with a recycled, shell-like payload cover, half of which flew on two previous missions. The other half was from the gift of an earlier veteran launch.

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Two rescue ships were sent out to sea to recover the rescue halves from the Tuesday night mission after they parachuted back to Earth from space.

As the booster and cruise shells descended to Earth, the upper stage of the Falcon 9 pointed the 60 flat-plate Starlink satellites into a transmission orbit inclined 53 degrees to the equator. About 15 minutes after take-off, the upper stage fired retaining rods to allow the 60 spacecraft to fly off the rocket over the North Atlantic.

Falcon 9 aims to place the satellites in an elliptical orbit between 132 miles (213 km) and 227 miles (366 km). A member of the SpaceX launch team confirmed in an audio loop of the mission that the missile achieved an orbital insertion on the target.

The launch date was previously scheduled for Saturday night, then was postponed to Sunday, when SpaceX canceled a launch attempt due to concerns about “mission guarantee”. SpaceX exceeded the launch opportunity on Monday due to expectations of poor conditions in the marine landing area of ​​the Falcon 9, paving the way for Tuesday’s countdown.

Tuesday night’s launch was SpaceX’s 23rd mission for 2020, expanding the company’s record-breaking pace. The previous record for most SpaceX launches in one year was 21 missions in 2018.

The exhaust shaft of nine Merlin 1D main engines appeared as the Falcon 9 rocket surged through clouds over Cape Canaveral on Tuesday night. Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

The quarter-ton Starlink satellites built by SpaceX in Redmond, Washington, were expected to launch energy-generating solar arrays and direct their krypton ion engines to begin raising their orbits to an operating altitude of 341 miles (550 km). To over 800 other Starlink relay stations to transmit broadband Internet signals across most of the inhabited world.

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With the launch on Sunday, SpaceX 955 deployed a Starlink satellite into orbit.

SpaceX plans to operate an initial block of about 1,500 Starlink satellites in orbits 341 miles above Earth. The company, founded by billionaire Elon Musk, has won regulatory approval from the Federal Communications Commission to introduce a fleet of eventually up to 12,000 small Starlink broadband stations operating in the Ku-band, Ka-band and V frequencies.

There are also initial plans for a fleet of more than 30,000 additional Starlink satellites, but a network of this size has not been authorized by the FCC.

SpaceX says its Starlink network – designed for low-latency internet service – is in beta testing in several US states and Canada.

“Last month, SpaceX launched its beta program” Better Than None Beta, “the company said in a post on its website.” Service invitations have been sent to a portion of those who requested availability updates on Starlink.com who live in serviceable areas. ” Two weeks ago, Canada granted regulatory approval to Starlink, and last week SpaceX deployed the service to parts of southern Canada. “

The “invite-only” pilot test program focuses on testing Starlink connectivity in rural and remote areas in the northern United States and southern Canada, said Kate Tice, the SpaceX engineer who co-hosted the company’s Tuesday night launch webcast.

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“As we launch more satellites, install more ground stations, improve network software, data speed, latency and uptime will all improve dramatically,” said Tice.

Tice said the response time for SpaceX projects on Starlink will drop to about 16 to 19 milliseconds by mid-2019.

She said: “At our current pace, we expect to expand our beta release in a very noticeable manner early next year, in the timeframe from late January to February.”

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