SpaceX launched a new — and colossal — commercial communications satellite into orbit on Saturday evening and set a new launch record for its Falcon 9 rocket at the same time.
The Falcon 9 was launched into orbit from Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, carrying 34 of the SpaceXs. Starlink Internet Satellites and BlueWalker 3, a prototype satellite built by AST SpaceMobile that is billed as the largest commercial communications network ever flown in space. Liftoff occurred at 9:20 p.m. EDT (0120 GMT) Saturday evening (September 10), with the Falcon 9 boost by doing SpaceX history when he returned to Earth.
“This is a record 14th landing for this booster,” Jesse Anderson, director of production engineering for SpaceX, said at a press conference. live commentary (opens in a new tab).
The mission also set a few other records.
It was SpaceX’s first five-engine mission to deploy payloads into orbit, as well as the heaviest ride-hailing payload the company has ever made. (Blue Walker 3 weighs a whopping 3,300 pounds (1,500 kilograms), Anderson said.)
Discover AST SpaceMobile’s BlueWalker 3
While SpaceX’s primary goal for Saturday’s launch was to add 34 new Starlinks satellites to its growing constellation in orbit, AST SpaceMobile’s BlueWalker 3 satellite stood out for both its size and its ambitious mission.
The satellite, which will measure 693 square feet (64 square meters) when fully unfolded, is the largest commercial antenna array launched into space. Its mission: to test a new technology designed to deliver global cell phone service directly to users from space. The goal is to fill coverage gaps and provide seamless high-speed voice and data service in underserved areas.
“The reason our satellite is big is because to communicate with a low power, low internal power phone, you just need a big antenna on one side with a lot of power, and so that’s a part essential part of our infrastructure,” Scott Wisniewski, chief strategy officer for AST SpaceMobile, told Space.com in an interview. “We think it’s really important to communicate directly with the usual handsets, without modification of the handset, without additional burden for the user.”
It will be several weeks before AST SpaceMobile orders BlueWalker 3 to deploy its spring-loaded antenna, Wisniewski said. During this time, the company will perform a series of health checks to ensure the satellite is in good condition, he added.
AST SpaceMobile has partnered with 25 cellular service providers, 10 of which will take part in the company’s planned six-month BlueWalker 3 cruise to test its capabilities on six continents around the world. Those partners include providers such as Vodaphone, Rakuten Mobile and Orange, and a potential reach of 1.8 million phone users, Wisniewski said. Earlier this summer, the company received a FCC license to test BlueWalker 3 service in Texas and Hawaii in the United States.
In order to provide complete coverage, AST SpaceMobile will need more than one satellite. “It’s sort of the culmination of the R&D stage of our company before moving into production satellites next year,” Wisniewski said.
The company plans to follow BlueWalker 3 with five operational satellites in 2023. It eventually aims to build a constellation of at least 100 giant satellites to provide comprehensive coverage.
AST SpaceMobile is not alone in seeking mobile phone coverage from space. The company Lynk Global is working on a similar project and Elon Musk revealed last month that SpaceX partners with T-Mobile provide cellular service with its Starlink satellites.
Due to their size, AST SpaceMobile’s satellites can be visible from the ground to skywatchers and some astronomers have criticized the plan for its potential impact on the telescope’s observations from the ground, according to a New Scientist’s Report (opens in a new tab). If this complaint sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the one who chased down SpaceX’s own Starlink constellation once this company started launching dozens at a time.
A record of rocket reuse as Starlink grows
About 8.5 minutes after the launch of the BlueWalker 3 and Starlink satellites, the first stage of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket returned to Earth for a precise landing on the company’s drone company A Shortfall Of Gravitas in the Atlantic Ocean. The landing set a new record for the number of launches for a Falcon 9 booster.
Prior to Saturday’s flight, the Falcon 9 stage launched eight different Starlink missions, as well as SpaceX’s first astronaut test flight for NASA (called Demo-2) in May 2020; the ANASIS-2 satellite for South Korea in July 2020; the CRS-21 uncrewed cargo mission to the International Space Station for NASA in December 2020, and the Transporter 1 and Transporter 3 rideshare missions in January 2021 and January 2022, respectively.
When Elon Musk unveiled the Falcon 9 Block 5 workhorse booster in 2018, he said SpaceX’s goal was to fly them at least 10 times. With each subsequent flight, the company has pushed its limits on rocket reuse as part of its efforts to reduce the cost of spaceflight.
Similarly, SpaceX has continued to increase the size of its Starlink constellation, as well as the number of countries and coverage areas in recent years. In August, Royal Caribbean announced (opens in a new tab) it will use Starlink on all of its cruise ships by 2023, with SpaceX already offering services for RVs, boats and homes around the world.
The company has launched more than 3,200 satellites since 2019, with thousands more to come. SpaceX plans to complete its initial constellation with 12,000 Starlinks in orbit and has requested permission to increase it to 30,000 satellites.
On Sunday, September 11, SpaceX plans to launch a new Starlink mission. The flight, which will carry 54 Starlink satellites, is scheduled to launch from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 10:53 p.m. EDT (02:53 GMT). You can watch this launch live on Space.com as it lifts off.
Saturday’s launch marked the 41st of the year for SpaceX. This was the company’s 179th launch.