SpaceX reached another milestone early Sunday, launching the latest batch of 60 Starlink internet satellites atop a Falcon 9 rocket using a first stage making a record 10th flight. It was the company's 14th launch so far this year and its fifth flight to orbit in less than five weeks.
Just a few hours after SpaceX founder Elon Musk marked a personal milestone — hosting "Saturday Night Live" in New York — the company's Florida launch team fired off the Falcon 9, igniting its "flight proven" first stage engines at 2:42 a.m. EDT to kick off an hour-long flight.
"... Three, two, one, zero, ignition and liftoff," called SpaceX's countdown commentator. "Let's go Falcon for number 10!"
With nine previous flights to its credit, the first in March 2019, the Falcon 9's first stage smoothy accelerated skyward from pad 40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, shattering the overnight calm with a booming roar and a brilliant jet of flaming exhaust from its nine Merlin engines.
Two and a half minutes later, after propelling the rocket out of the lower atmosphere, the first stage fell away and then flew itself to a pinpoint landing on an off-shore droneship. It was the booster's 10th successful landing, SpaceX's 61st at sea and its 83rd overall.
The second stage, meanwhile, carried out two firings of its single vacuum-rated Merlin, releasing all 60 Starlinks to fly on their own about an hour after liftoff. SpaceX has now launched 1,625 Starlinks since testing and deployment began in 2018 as it builds out a global network of high-speed commercial broadband stations.
The landing marked a major milestone for SpaceX and the Falcon 9, a rocket system Musk says should be able to fly dozens of times with regular refurbishment. No other company in the world recovers and relaunches orbit-class rocket stages although several, following SpaceX's lead, are now developing their own reusable systems.
The first stage launched Sunday, serial number B1051, first flew on March 2, 2019, when it helped launch an unpiloted Crew Dragon capsule for NASA's commercial crew program.
The booster also helped launched a Canadian radar satellite, a Sirius XM radio relay station and with Sunday's flight, seven Starlink missions carrying 417 of the compact satellites, or about 25% of the total launched to date.
Another Falcon 9 first stage has completed nine flights, the most recent coming last week, while two other stages have flown seven times each. Overall, SpaceX has now launched 63 missions with previously flown boosters.