SpaceX launches its first Starlink internet satellites (and Spain’s Paz satellite, too)

SpaceX Falcon 9 launch
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket blasts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. (SpaceX via YouTube)

SpaceX put its first two prototype Starlink broadband satellites into orbit along with a Spanish radar imaging satellite today.

The launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California came at 6:17 a.m. PT Thursday, 24 hours after strong upper-level winds forced a postponement of the first attempt.

No such issue arose during today’s trouble-free countdown, and the exhaust left behind by the rocket’s ascent made for an eerie, UFO-like picture in the skies above Southern California.

Putting Hisdesat’s Paz spacecraft into orbit was the primary objective for this mission. Paz (the Spanish word for “Peace”) is designed to follow the same path as Europe’s TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X radar satellites, providing high-resolution radar coverage for government and commercial applications for at least five years.

But it’s the secondary objectives that are really interesting. Riding along with Paz were those prototypes for what’s expected to become a SpaceX constellation of thousands of satellites. The constellation, known as Starlink, is designed to provide low-cost, low-latency broadband internet service from low Earth orbit.

Musk said Starlink would provide connectivity for those “least served” by currently available networks. “If anyone is curious, the name was inspired by ‘The Fault in Our Stars,'” he said in a tweet, referring to a romantic novel written by John Green.

Later, Musk reported that the prototype satellites were christened Tintin A and B, and were in contact with ground networks:

SpaceX’s team in Redmond, Wash., has been playing a lead role in developing the hardware and the satellite communications technology for Starlink.

When SpaceX CEO Elon Musk unveiled the multibillion-dollar project in 2015 in Seattle, he said the revenue from the operation would be a key source of funding for SpaceX’s vision of building a city on Mars. Financial documents that leaked out to the Wall Street Journal last year suggest that Starlink is meant to be a key source of funding for SpaceX, period.

Because the satellite market is so competitive, SpaceX has said little about Starlink beyond what’s required by regulatory filings. According to those filings, the test mission involves having the satellites communicate with several of SpaceX’s ground and mobile stations, in Redmond as well as at SpaceX facilities in California and elsewhere.

SpaceX plans to start launching operational satellites next year, with an eye toward starting limited service by as early as 2020. It has plenty of competitors in the developing market for low-Earth-orbit satellite internet access, including the OneWeb consortium, Telesat and perhaps even Boeing.

Beyond the satellite deployments, there was one more novel objective: an attempt to recover the fairing, or nose cone, that protects payloads during ascent.

Mr. Steven
A ship dubbed Mr. Steven was equipped with a net to catch the fairing. (Elon Musk via Instagram)

Falcon 9 fairings have typically been thrown away, but Musk figures that if they can be recovered and reused, SpaceX could save $6 million in mission costs. That represents almost 10 percent of the $62 million list price for a standard Falcon 9 launch.

For this launch, the fairing was equipped with a parafoil. SpaceX sent out a specially equipped ship, dubbed Mr. Steven, with a net that was designed to serve as a “catcher’s mitt” for snaring the fairing as it fell.

Musk tweeted that the parafoil was deployed during the fairing’s descent, but that Mr. Steven couldn’t quite make the catch this time.

“Missed by a few hundred meters, but fairing landed intact in water,” Musk said in a tweet. “Should be able to catch it with slightly bigger chutes to slow down descent.”

He posted a picture of the apparently undamaged fairing, as seen from the ship.

SpaceX’s first-stage boosters have typically been recovered. In fact, the booster for today’s launch previously flew last August, landed on a drone ship and was refurbished.

That didn’t happen this time. Because SpaceX is upgrading its Falcon 9 first stage, it had no intention of recycling the soon-to-be-outdated model.

Update for 9:25 a.m. PT Feb. 22: In a series of follow-up tweets, Musk had a bit of fun with his plans for the Tintin satellites, which are named after the famous Belgian cartoon character:

Update for 10:20 a.m. PT Feb. 22: More pictures and videos of SpaceX’s launch (and possibly the second stage’s descent) are coming in. Here’s a selection:

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