SpaceX has launched its latest batch of Starlink satellites, growing the constellation by another 58 spacecraft just 10 days after its most recent Starlink launch. That brings the total number of operational Starlink broadband internet satellites on orbit to 538. SpaceX also split the payload for this Starlink mission for the first time, giving up two of its usual Starlink payload complement in order to also carry three Planet Skysat spacecraft on behalf of that client.
SpaceX’s latest Starlink launch was significant not only because it brings the company closer to its goal of actually operating a consumer-facing broadband internet service, which it hopes to begin doing for a limited pool of customers in the U.S. and Canada by later this year, but also because these Starlink satellites carried new modifications designed to make them more astronomer-friendly.
Starlink, because of its size and the relatively low-altitude orbit that they traverse, has been criticized by nighttime scientific observers because they present a potentially bright distraction as they pass overhead. SpaceX launched one Starlink satellite equipped with a new deployable sun visor it created that can block reflections of sunlight off their antenna surfaces, and on this launch, each of the 58 satellites was outfitted with this new mitigating technology.
Hopefully, that means that Starlink can now exist more harmoniously with scientists who rely on Earth-based observation of the stars and night sky, but the ultimate proof will be in what difference these solar visors make when deployed in volume among the Starlink constellation.
This mission was also the first conducted under SpaceX’s formalized SmallSat Rideshare Program, which offers small satellite operators a chance to book a ride aboard an upcoming SpaceX launch in a relatively flexible, “on-demand” manner using a web portal SpaceX created for the purpose. SpaceX’s efforts to offer more value to the rideshare business reflects a recognition that other launch providers like Rocket Lab, which tailor specifically to that market segment, are significant potential competition to its overall bottom line.
The launch today, which occurred at 5:21 AM EDT (2:21 AM PDT), also included a recovery landing of the Falcon 9 first-stage booster used to propel the payload to space. This booster also previously flew on two of SpaceX’s Dragon cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station.