Sixty Starlink satellites in their launch configuration before being encapsulated in the Falcon 9’s payload fairing. Photo Credit: SpaceX
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — 2020 looks to be a big year for space. The next twelve months could see the U.S. regain a long-lost capability and another rover should be sent on its way to the Red Planet. SpaceX is planning to kick off 2020 with the launch of the next batch of Starlink satellites.
SpaceX is scheduled to launch its next batch of 60 Starlink satellites with a Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket on January 3, 2020, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40. The two-hour launch window will open unofficially at 10:24 p.m. EST (14:24 GMT). The mission has been delayed several times, most recently from a few days earlier in late December.
SpaceX’s fleet of Starlink spacecraft are being placed on orbit to help provide broadband internet services to areas with less coverage. Photo Credit: SpaceX
Although designated Starlink 2, this mission will actually be the third launch of 60 Starlink satellites at a time. The spacecraft are destined to become part of the Starlink mega-constellation which will be stationed in low-Earth orbit (LEO), providing broadband internet connectivity to underserved areas of the planet, as well as competitively-priced service to urban areas.
The prior two Starlink missions were successfully launched in May and again in November 2019. Of the 120 satellites contained in those two missions, all but three are believed to be “healthy.”
Since the most recent Starlink launch this past November, there have been a number of noteworthy program developments:
– The orientation of the initial 1,500 satellites has been altered significantly. Rather than being arrayed in 24 orbital planes, with 66 satellites in each plane, the plan is to now place them in 72 orbital planes, with 22 satellites in each plane. All of these initial satellites will orbit the Earth at an altitude of about 340 miles (547 km) above the Earth (well above the International Space Station that resides at roughly 200-220 miles altitude).
– SpaceX has announced the timing of launches for the next two batches of Starlink satellites: Starlink 3 in about mid-January, and Starlink 4 in late January.
– The southern United States may be the first area to be served by Starlink, perhaps in time for the 2020 hurricane season (which takes place between June and November).
The Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket for the Starlink 2 mission will utilize the B1049 first stage booster. It will be the fourth flight for that particular booster core (its prior missions took place in September 2018, January 2019, and May 2019). SpaceX reportedly intends to retrieve that booster once again with drone ship Of Course I Still Love You off the coast of Florida in the Atlantic Ocean.
The 60-satellite payload of Starlink 2 is expected to be about the same as Starlink 1, weighing in at 34,400 pounds (15,600 kg). That’s the heaviest payload by far for a Falcon 9 rocket, and is even heavier than the December 2019 Atlas V Starliner payload at 28,660 pounds (13,000 kg). Other than the Starlink missions, the heaviest Falcon 9 payload has been the JCSAT-18/Kacific mission: 15,335 pounds (6,956 kg) which flew in December of 2019.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket burns an arc across the skies of Florida. Photo Credit: SpaceX
This article was edited at 4:18 p.m. EDT until we can confirm information that had been posted
Jim Siegel comes from a business and engineering background, as well as a journalistic one. He has a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue University, an MBA from the University of Michigan, and executive certificates from Northwestern University and Duke University. Jim got interested in journalism in 2002. As a resident of Celebration, FL, Disney’s planned community outside Orlando, he has written and performed photography extensively for the Celebration Independent and the Celebration News. He has also written for the Detroit News, the Indianapolis Star, and the Northwest Indiana Times (where he started his newspaper career at age 11 as a paperboy). Jim is well known around Celebration for his photography, and he recently published a book of his favorite Celebration scenes. Jim has covered the Kennedy Space Center since 2006. His experience has brought a unique perspective to his coverage of first, the space shuttle Program, and now the post-shuttle era, as US space exploration accelerates its dependence on commercial companies. He specializes in converting the often highly technical aspects of the space program into contexts that can be understood and appreciated by average Americans.