On Wednesday afternoon, SpaceX is pressing ahead with its internet-from-space initiative, launching another batch of 60 broadband-beaming satellites into orbit from Florida. This is the company’s seventh launch for its ambitious internet project, known as Starlink, and if successful, SpaceX will have put more than 420 of the nearly 12,000 planned satellites into orbit.
With such a massive constellation in orbit, SpaceX hopes to eventually provide global internet coverage from space. Once enough satellites have been launched, the company plans to sell user terminals to customers that will allow them to patch into the satellite network. As of now, the plan is to roll out partial coverage to Canada and the northern United States sometime this year, with global coverage potentially becoming available in 2021.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said that the company only needs about 400 satellites to provide “initial operational capability” and then 800 satellites to bump that up to “significant operational capabilities.” That means after this launch, SpaceX will have the minimum number of spacecraft Musk says is required to get Starlink started.
But SpaceX still has a lot of satellites to launch before things get “significant,” and the company’s last Starlink launch didn’t quite go as smoothly as the others. During that launch in March, one of the main engines on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket shut off early as the vehicle climbed to space, with its 60 satellites in tow. (The rocket still successfully deployed the satellites into orbit, despite the bad engine.) Additionally, the Falcon 9 failed to land, missing the drone ship it was targeting in the Atlantic Ocean. SpaceX’s landings are not part of the primary mission, which is getting the satellites into orbit, but a failed touchdown is rare for the company these days. And this was the second failed landing for SpaceX this year.
That means a lot of eyes will be on this mission to make sure it goes well — and it won’t just be SpaceX paying attention. The company is just over a month away from launching its first astronauts to space on the Falcon 9 rocket for NASA. The space agency has been working with SpaceX to investigate the March engine failure to make sure it’s not a major problem before people ride on the rocket. A smooth launch today is going to be necessary for SpaceX to maintain its target launch date for its NASA flight on May 27th.
For today’s flight, SpaceX is using a lot of used hardware. The company is flying one of its Falcon 9 rockets that’s been to space and back three times before, and the nose cone — which surrounds the satellites on top of the rocket — also flew to space on a previous mission. After takeoff, the Falcon 9 will attempt to land for a third time on one of SpaceX’s autonomous drone ships in the Atlantic Ocean. SpaceX will also try to catch the two halves of its nose cone, or payload fairing, using two of the company’s boats equipped with giant nets. So far, SpaceX has yet to catch these fairing halves and land a rocket all on the same flight.
Takeoff is scheduled for 3:30PM ET out of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The launch time today was actually moved up by seven minutes — a rarity for the space industry. In fact, SpaceX’s launch was originally planned for tomorrow, but it was moved to today since there were better odds of good weather. If, for some reason, the Falcon 9 can’t launch today, SpaceX will try again tomorrow at 3:15PM ET.
Live coverage of today’s launch will begin about 10 minutes before takeoff. Check back this afternoon to watch the mission live.