SpaceX Starlink launch: Falcon 9 lands safely, megaconstellation gets bigger

Elon Musk's spaceflight company sends up 60 satellites to add to its global internet megaconstellation.

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Jackson Ryan was CNET's science editor, and a multiple award-winning one at that. Earlier, he'd been a scientist, but he realized he wasn't very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Science writing, he realized, was the best job in the world -- it let him tell stories about space, the planet, climate change and the people working at the frontiers of human knowledge. He also owns a lot of ugly Christmas sweaters.
Jackson Ryan
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I'm burning through the sky, yeah!


SpaceX's workhorse Falcon 9 booster roared to life on Monday, its engines blazing a yellow-orange streak through the darkness of a cool Florida night. Within its payload bay sat 60 Starlink satellites, designed to sit in low-Earth orbit and deliver high-speed internet access across the entire planet.

It was a routine launch and landing for SpaceX. The Falcon 9 booster used during the launch had flown on three previous SpaceX missions, including the first Starlink drop-off in May 2019. Its fourth touchdown, on the Of Course I Still Love You droneship, was picture perfect (the sometimes-shaky live feed didn't even drop out!), occurring eight minutes and 23 seconds after launch.

That makes it the 48th successful landing of a booster. 

The 60 satellites are deployed approximately 290 kilometers above the Earth and then propel themselves into the their operational orbit of 500 kilometers. 

The Starlink satellites have caused concern among the astronomy community, with scientists and researchers noting how the glare from the tiny spacecraft can interfere with their ability to observe the cosmos. They are particularly visible shortly after they are offloaded from the rocket and to combat this problem, SpaceX has included a single satellite with a "darkening treatment" to try and decrease the brightness of the craft.

SpaceX also planned to catch the fairing half -- the dome-shaped sheet that protects the payload -- in a giant net aboard the ship Ms. Tree about 45 minutes after launch. During the livestream, SpaceX confirmed the fairing was not caught. 

Notably, the mission marked an important milestone for Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the 45th Space Wing -- it was the first conducted as part of the US Space Force.

SpaceX's next Falcon 9 flight will have special significance for NASA's Commercial Crew Program and SpaceX's ambitions for taking astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). On Monday, the space agency announced the in-flight abort test would be delayed until, at the earliest, Jan. 18. 

The launch is designed to test out the abort mechanisms of the Crew Dragon spacecraft that will (hopefully) be ferrying astronauts to the ISS later this year. The in-flight abort is essentially the last major hurdle for Crew Dragon's first crewed flight, after the capsule showed it could successfully rendezvous with the ISS and get back to Earth in one piece in March 2019.

Watch this: Are SpaceX Starlink satellites ruining the night sky?

Meet the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, the world's most powerful rocket

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Originally published Jan. 4.
Update, Jan. 6, 2:04 p.m. PT: Adds backup launch information.
Update, Jan. 7, 7:22 p.m. PT: Adds mission report