(CBS NEWS) – A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket boosted a ninth batch of Starlink internet relay satellites into space early Saturday along with three Planet-owned imaging satellites hitching a ride in SpaceX’s first “SmallSat Rideshare” launch.
SpaceX’s 10th Falcon 9 flight so far this year got underway at 5:21 a.m. ET when the nine Merlin 1D engines in the twice-flown first stage roared to life, pushing the 230-foot-tall rocket away from pad 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
In a departure from long-standing practice, SpaceX opted not to test fire the first stage engines before launch. But the “flight-proven” first stage chalked up a picture-perfect climb out of the lower atmosphere, putting on a spectacular show as it shot through thin clouds and lighted them from above.
Two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, the engines shut down, the stage fell away and the single vacuum-rated Merlin powering the second stage ignited to continue to climb to orbit.
As usual for Falcon 9 flights, the first stage flipped around after separation, putting itself in an engine-forward orientation as it fell back toward the lower atmosphere.
After a short three-engine burn to slow down for re-entry, the booster homed in on an off-shore droneship — the “Of Course I Still Love You” — and settled to a smooth touchdown using a single engine. It was the 35th successful droneship landing and SpaceX’s 54th overall.
About 10 seconds after touchdown, the second stage engine shut down after reaching the planned orbit. The three SkySat imaging satellites then were deployed one at a time, followed by 58 small Starlinks that were released in a single group, slowly spreading apart as they separated.
Planet’s SkySat-16, 17 and 18 were on board as part of SpaceX’s first rideshare launch in which the California rocket-builder provides low-cost access to space for small satellites that might otherwise have to wait for rides on other boosters that don’t fly as often.
Three more SkySats are scheduled to fly aboard a Falcon 9 in July.
“We had a really good experience,” Mike Safyan, vice president of launch at Planet, told Spaceflight Now. “We were ready to launch, and if we were to go to a dedicated launch service provider, then it could take 12 or 18 months for them to build their launch vehicle from scratch and fit it into their manifest.
“Launch companies typically don’t just have rockets sitting around on inventory that haven’t been assigned. So being able to turn this around really quickly was another big advantage, and SpaceX is one of the few launch providers in the world that could do this so quickly.”
Operating in a 250-mile-high orbit, SkySats provide high-definition commercial imagery that can be used by government agencies or other companies to monitor the environment, industrial development, land usage, population movement, disaster relief and other critical variables on a daily basis.
Skybox, the original developer of the SkySat system, was acquired by Google in 2014 and the name later was changed to Terra Bella. Google then sold the company to Planet in 2017, which merged them with a large fleet of more than 100 Dove and SuperDove remote sensing satellites.
The SkySats are about the size of mini refrigerators and weight about 240 pounds each.
“With a six-year lifetime, that gives us a pretty long runway with respect to what these SkySats will be able to provide,” Safyan said. “We’re looking at the future of high-res at Planet. It’s still too early to talk about the details of that. But we will continue to offer both medium-res and high-res products to our customers.”
With the SkySats on their way, the 58 Starlinks were released from the Falcon 9’s second stage, boosting SpaceX’s total to 538 internet relay stations through nine launches, seven of them this year.
The company plans to begin offering space-based internet service across the northern United States and Canada later this year with an initial fleet of more 700 satellites. As the constellation expands, so will internet access around the world. SpaceX has regulatory approval to launch more than 12,000 Starlinks.
Astronomers continue to assess the potential threat posed by thousands of satellites in low-Earth orbit reflecting sunlight that could disrupt sensitive observations by the world’s most powerful telescopes.
SpaceX is testing different techniques to reduce the brightness of the satellites, including dark coatings and sun shades, or visors, to minimize reflections from solar arrays. But the jury is still out on the long-range impact of large satellite constellations.