SpaceX successfully deployed 60 new Starlink satellites today, adding to its controversial internet constellation, though what happened down on the ground was arguably just as important. Falcon 9 launched from the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 8:16am ET, the sixth Starlink mission and another opportunity for SpaceX to demonstrate the reusability of its rockets.
That’s because the mission today was in fact the second time SpaceX had re-flown a full payload fairing. It’s paving the way for that to happen again, too, having recovered both halves of the fairing used today from the water after they landed there.
Elon Musk’s space company is increasingly reusing components that, at one point in time, would’ve required new parts for each mission. The Falcon 9 first stage, for example, had been used back in July 2018, for the Iridium-7 NEXT mission; it was then reused in October that year. Come February 2019, it was involved in the Nusantara Satu mission, and then again for Starlink’s second launch in November 2019.
The Falcon 9 fairing, captured again today, was previously used in the first Starlink launch. That took place in May 2019.
While reusing rocket components is undeniably a good thing, opinions are more divided on the Starlink constellation itself. SpaceX plans to use the satellites, which will form a long line in orbit, to deliver internet access. That has the potential to bring online areas traditionally undeserved – or not served at all – with terrestrial internet options.
Subscribers will use an auto-configurating satellite modem to get online. That’s expected to unfold and automatically position itself to get the best signal, tracking the orbit of the Starlink constellation as the Earth rotates. Access is expected to be in the US initially, though SpaceX plans a broader roll-out over time.
Not everybody is so happy, however. Astronomers have criticized SpaceX for deploying so many satellites, given how visible they are in the night sky to people attempting to use ground telescopes. As the constellation density increases, that potential for disruption increases in tandem.
Musk has previously dismissed concerns, arguing that the reality of astronomy is that space-based telescopes are the way forward anyway. Nonetheless, the decision to build out Starlink is likely to face increasing pressure from scientists unhappy with the state of space regulation. Back in October 2019, SpaceX requested permission to add 30,000 more Starlink satellites to the constellation.