The upgrade signals a new phase for the satellite broadband network.
Elon Musk's SpaceX is gearing up for a big flight Wednesday, when the company enters the space tourism business by launching four civilians to space on the Inspiration4 mission. But a Falcon 9 launch Monday evening marked the beginning of the next phase of development for the company's pioneering Starlink satellite broadband network.
The company lofted and deployed 51 new small satellites, all of them equipped with laser cross-links representing the start of a major upgrade for the growing mega-constellation in low Earth orbit.
SpaceX hadn't launched any new Starlink flying routers since June 30. Two months is an exceptionally long pause for a program that has at times managed near-weekly launches to build up its high-speed internet access offering around the globe.
To date, SpaceX has launched over 1,700 Starlinks, with thousands more planned for the years to come.
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell revealed at the Space Symposium in Colorado on Aug. 24 that the pause in Starlink deployment was to allow for the next batch of satellites to be fitted with the laser links, enabling them to communicate with each other in orbit.
The laser crosslinks, something SpaceX has long touted as part of its Starlink plan, allow the network to operate with fewer ground stations and also are meant to reduce latency by letting data be routed around the constellation without having to make longer "hops" between the ground and orbit.
Ten satellites with laser links were launched to a polar orbit in January to avoid the need for ground stations near the poles. This small batch was the first equipped with the technology, but SpaceX hopes Monday's launch marks a transition to all Starlink satellites launched going forward carrying laser crosslinks.
The mission also marks a homecoming of sorts for Starlink. It was the first launch for the project from California's Vandenberg Space Force Base since the first two test satellites, known as Tintin A and B, lifted off from there on Feb. 22, 2018.
A Falcon 9 loaded with 51 of the next-generation Starlinks blasted off at 8:55 p.m. PT. The first-stage booster launched and landed for the 10th time, tying the company's mark for booster recycling. It touched down on the droneship Of Course I Still Love You in the Pacific Ocean and will be returned to port to see if it has an 11th flight in it at some point in the future.
You can rewatch the entire mission via the feed at the top of this page.