SpaceX will launch more than four dozen satellites and land the returning rocket today (Feb. 21) and you can watch the action live.
A two-stage Falcon 9 rocket topped with 46 of SpaceX’s Starlink broadband spacecraft is scheduled to lift off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station Sunday at 9:44 a.m. EST (1444 GMT). You can watch it live here at Space.com, courtesy of SpaceX, or directly via the company. SpaceX’s webcast will begin about 15 minutes before launch.
The launch plan includes a rocket landing: About nine minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9’s first stage will come back down to Earth for a vertical touchdown on SpaceX’s droneship A Shortfall of Gravitas, which will be stationed in the Atlantic Ocean a few hundred miles off the Florida coast.
SpaceX initially planned to launch the mission on Sunday, but delayed it a day due to bad weather for that rocket recovery. “Due to recovery weather, now targeting Monday, February 21 at 9:44 a.m. EST for launch of Starlink,” SpaceX wrote on Twitter Saturday. There is a 90% chance of good weather conditions at launch time today, according to the U.S. Space Force’s Delta 45 group at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
Monday’s will be the 11th launch and landing of this particular Falcon 9 first stage, according to EverydayAstronaut.com. That will tie SpaceX’s reuse record, which was set by a different Falcon 9 core during a Starlink launch in December.
SpaceX has already launched three big Starlink batches this year — two in January and one on Feb. 3. The most recent mission ran into serious trouble, however, thanks to a solar eruption, which triggered a geomagnetic solar storm here on Earth.
That storm increased atmospheric density, boosting drag on the newly launched Starlink satellites. As a result, up to 40 of the 49 spacecraft were expected to come crashing back to Earth, SpaceX representatives said. Ultimately, 38 of the Starlinks fell from space, with the 11 others raising their orbits, according to Spaceflight Now.
SpaceX is apparently targeting a higher orbit in which to release its new Starlink satellites on today’s flight, according to the Spaceflight Now report, which reduced the number of satellties from 49 to 46. They will be deployed in a near-circular target orbit that will range between 202 miles and 209 miles (325-337 kilometers) at its highest and lowest points, Spaceflight Now reported.
The lowest altitude for the satellites lost in the solar storm was about 130 miles (210 km), SpaceX has said. The company intentionally deploys its large batches of Starlink satellites into low orbits so that they can fall back to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere to avoid creating space debris if they suffer a malfunction in orbit.
SpaceX has already launched about 2,100 Starlink satellites to orbit, with more than 200 falling from orbit from failures or decommissioning, according to Spaceflight Now. But the company is far from done. SpaceX has approval to launch 12,000 Starlink craft and has applied for permission from an international regulator for up to 30,000 more.
Correction: An initial version of this story stated that SpaceX aimed to launch 49 Starlink satellites into orbit on the Starlink 4-8 mission. SpaceX is actually launching 46 Starlinks on the flight.
Mike Wall is the author of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.
Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, “Out There,” was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor’s degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.