CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (CBS) — A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket fired its 14th batch of Starlink internet relay satellites into orbit Sunday from the Kennedy Space Center with another set of 60 awaiting launch Wednesday from the nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
With Sunday’s flight, SpaceX has now launched 835 Starlinks in a rapidly-expanding global network that eventually will feature thousands of commercial broadband beacons delivering high-speed internet to any point on Earth. To reach that goal, the company plans to launch at least 120 new Starlinks every month.
The latest mission got underway at 8:26 a.m. EDT when the Falcon 9’s nine first stage engines ignited with a burst of flame, pushing the slender rocket away from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center atop 1.7 million pounds of thrust.
Making it’s sixth flight, the first stage propelled the rocket out of the dense lower atmosphere and then fell away and headed for landing an off-shore droneship. Touchdown marked SpaceX’s 62nd successful booster recovery since December 2015, its 42nd at sea.
Less than a minute after stage separation, the two halves of the rocket’s nose cone fairing, both veterans of two earlier missions, fell away for parachute descents to capture netting aboard waiting recovery ships. Both were successfully recovered, although one appeared to break through its netting, possibly hitting the deck.
The second stage, meanwhile, pressed ahead to orbit and after two firings of its vacuum-rated Merlin engine, all 60 Starlinks were released to fly on their own about an hour after liftoff.
Sunday’s launch marked SpaceX’s second Falcon 9 flight since Oct. 2 when a last-second abort blocked launch of a Space Force Global Positioning System navigation satellite. That flight remains on hold while company engineers assess an apparent issue with engine turbopump machinery.
SpaceX has not provided any details about how the engines used Sunday and those used during a Starlink flight Oct. 18 might be different from those used for the GPS mission.
Likewise, there’s been no word from SpaceX or NASA on whether the engine issue poses any threat to the planned launch of four astronauts to the International Space Station atop a Falcon 9 next month.
Sunday’s launch was the 18th Falcon 9 flight so far this year, the 95th since the rocket’s debut in 2010, the 98th counting three launches of the triple-core Falcon Heavy. The Falcon 9 has suffered two catastrophic failures, one in flight and one during pre-launch testing.