SpaceX conducted its third launch this week on Friday, successfully sending 22 more Starlink internet satellites into orbit aboard a Falcon 9 rocket from California’s Vandenberg Space Force Base. The mission comes on the heels of two other Falcon 9 launches earlier this week from Florida, highlighting the company’s rapidly accelerating launch cadence.
Successful West Coast Launch Adds to Busy Week
The Falcon 9 lit up the night sky as it lifted off at 8:13 PM Eastern time from the space force base northwest of Los Angeles. After a flawless flight, the rocket’s first stage returned to Earth and touched down on a droneship stationed in the Pacific Ocean – the 200th successful landing of an orbital class rocket booster for SpaceX.
This launch was originally scheduled for Tuesday night, but was postponed multiple times due to poor weather conditions and minor technical issues. Friday night’s clear skies finally allowed for a smooth liftoff, deployment of the Starlink satellites, and landing.
The Starlink satellites will join over 3,000 others already in low Earth orbit, building out SpaceX’s growing constellation designed to deliver high-speed broadband internet globally. This launch was designated Starlink Group 7-10.
SpaceX has kept up a relentless pace in the new year, with Falcon 9 missions on January 7th and 10th preceding tonight’s flight. The company now has over 60 successful Falcon 9 launches since debuting the rocket variant in 2018.
Busy Launch Schedule Reflects Growing Industry
The packed launch manifest illustrates the rapidly expanding commercial space industry. SpaceX alone has plans for over 70 missions in 2024 across its fleet of Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and Starship rockets.
These include additional Starlink launches as well as commercial satellite missions. The company is also gearing up for crewed flights of its new Starship vehicle.
|SpaceX 2024 Launch Schedule
|Falcon 9: 30+ Launches
|Falcon Heavy: 5+ Launches
|Starship: Orbital Test Flight
The stepped-up tempo also comes in response to rising competition, especially from United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan Centaur rocket. ULA, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, is positioning the Vulcan as a rival to SpaceX’s low-cost Falcon 9.
Its first Vulcan Centaur mission occurred earlier this week, between the two SpaceX Florida launches. Additional vehicle options promise to meet growing launch demand and lower costs across the emerging commercial space economy.
Doubts Around Starlink’s Environmental Impact
However, SpaceX’s Starlink constellation has faced recent doubts around its environmental impact and orbital congestion. The huge satellite fleet has drawn criticism from astronomers about light pollution and radio interference.
There are also concerns about space junk and collision risks based on the number of new objects being placed in orbit. Competitors like Amazon are also gearing up for similar broadband satellite networks.
Regulatory agencies have started assessing the issues posed by these massive satellite fleets. SpaceX may need to evolve Starlink designs and orbits to alleviate environmental and congestion issues associated with the internet service.
This could add delays and expenses to the rollout. Still, the promise of global high-speed connectivity continues to fuel Starlink’s ongoing deployment.
Outlook: Full Launch Schedules, Growing Competition, Addressing Concerns
SpaceX has shown no signs of slowing its breakneck launch pace in early 2024, but faces new pressures around environmental impacts and emerging launch rivals.
The company is likely to push forward aggressively with additional Starlink missions as it races to activate its space-based internet service. We can expect continued rapid reuse of Falcon 9 boosters to enable its jam-packed manifest.
However, Streamlined launch licensing and closer governmental scrutiny around mega-constellations seem imminent. SpaceX will need to take constructive steps to ease doubts about Starlink’s orbital clutter and light pollution.
Cooperation with regulators and continued rocket innovation will be key to addressing these concerns while maintaining the company’s commercial space leadership. The coming year promises to bring abundant launch fireworks and continued jockeying between “new space” players like SpaceX and industry titans like ULA.
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