Science

SpaceX launches 100th Direct to Cell Starlink satellite on Falcon 9 flight from Cape Canaveral

The plume from the second stage lights up the pre-dawn sky over the Kennedy Space Center about seven and a half minutes after launch. Image: Steven Young/Spaceflight Now.

Update 5:24 a.m. EDT: SpaceX launched the Starlink 8-9 mission and landed the booster, B1073, on the droneship ‘A Shortfall of Gravitas.’

SpaceX launched a batch of Starlink satellites using a booster that ran into technical issues during the final seconds of its last launch attempt. The launch was the first of the month for the company, which is aiming for an average of 12 Falcon flights per month in 2024.

Liftoff of the Starlink 8-9 mission from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station happened at 4:55 a.m. EDT (0855 UTC). It added another 20 Starlink satellites to the growing megaconstellation.

Coming into the launch attempt, the 45th Weather Squadron forecast an 80 percent chance of favorable weather during the roughly four-hour launch window. The only potential concern was the presence of cumulus clouds in the area near the pad.

The first stage booster supporting this mission, B1073 in the SpaceX fleet, launched for a 16th time. It previously launched ispace’s HAKUTO-R lunar lander, SpaceX’s 27th Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-27) mission and 10 Starlink missions.

A Falcon 9 rocket ascends from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on the Starlink 8-9 mission on July 3, 2024. Image: Pete Carstens, MaxQ Productions for Spaceflight Now

A little more than eight minutes after liftoff, B1073 touched down on the SpaceX droneship, ‘A Shortfall of Gravitas.’ This will be the 76th landing on ASOG and the 327th booster landing to date.

While the last launch of B1073 was the Starlink 6-58 mission on May 13, 2024, its last launch attempt was on June 14 when it attempted to launch the Starlink 10-2 mission. It was stymied over the course of three launch attempts in as many days, culminating in an abort as the Merlin engines began firing prior to liftoff.

The following day, Kiko Dontchev, the SpaceX vice president of launch, wrote on X (formerly Twitter) that the booster experienced “a real issue,” which required them “to go inspect the hardware in detail.” He also noted that the problem created the first week without a Falcon launch “in a long time.”

That quiet stretch ended up lasting from June 8 to June 18 when SpaceX launched the Starlink 9-1 mission from Vandenberg Space Force Base, marking the first successive SpaceX launches from Vandenberg without a flight from Florida in the middle.

Despite the setback, SpaceX still launched 10 Falcon rockets in June, including the Falcon Heavy which carried the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) GOES-U satellite on June 25.

“We only launched 10 times in June, but Q2 as a whole saw 36 successful flights,” Dontchev wrote on X. “All of our goals are still very much within reach as long we keep safety and reliability first.”

SpaceX entered the year with the goal of hitting 144 launches or more by the end of the year. With June now in the rearview mirror, here’s where they currently stand for Falcon flights:

  • January – 10
  • February – 9
  • March – 12
  • April – 12
  • May – 14
  • June – 10

If SpaceX kept the same overall pace through the back end of the year, it would achieve 134 launches with its Falcon rockets (Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy).

Starlink expansion

The Wednesday morning launch continued to bolster the ever expanding Starlink megaconstellation in low Earth orbit. The Starlink 8-9 mission will be the 49th dedicated mission launching these satellites in 2024 and the 111th launch over the V2 Mini version of Starlink to date.

Among the 20 satellites launching are 13 that feature the Direct to Cell capability. This launch will put the DTC Starlink total at 103. Following the last launch with DTC Starlink satellites onboard, Sara Spangelo, the senior director of SpaceX, expressed her excitement on X at reaching the 90-satellite mark.

“Thrilled with how quickly we’re deploying and how soon we will be able to serve customers with ubiquitous connectivity directly to their phones!” Spangelo wrote.

The Starlink division of the company also welcomed Madagascar to its internet coverage. Michael Nicolls, the vice president of Starlink engineering, said this was the 101st market for the satellite internet provider.

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