One carried an experimental coating to dim spacecraft
BY CHABELI HERRERA
ORLANDO – The third batch of an Internet satellite constellation that could one day number in the tens of thousands launched to low-Earth orbit on a clear, cold night on the Space Coast Monday — with one important modification.
SpaceX already launched two sets of 60 satellites each last year, but they quickly drew concern from astronomers who have spotted the bright train of satellites in the night sky from areas across the globe.
So, when SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket took off at 9:19 p.m. from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s launch complex 40 Monday, it carried a potential solution.
One of the satellites in this next batch of 60 got a darkening treatment to test whether SpaceX can further dim the spacecraft, helping to assuage worries from the astronomical community that the satellites’ brightness will impact accurate data collection.
Elon Musk’s rocket company also successfully landed the Falcon 9 booster for the fourth time on SpaceX’s drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You.” One of the booster’s previous missions was also a launch for Starlink, the Internet satellite constellation.
SpaceX launched its first Starlink satellites in May followed by 60 more in November. Monday’s launch puts the number of Starlink satellites currently on orbit at more than 180.
More this year
The plan is to have thousands of satellites — perhaps more than 30,000 one day — in orbit around the Earth, allowing even severely underserved areas to have access to reliable, highspeed broadband internet.
SpaceX hopes to have several more Starlink launches this year, enough to bring internet coverage to the Northern United States and Canada by the end of 2020.
Another 22 launches will bring SpaceX global coverage, the company said.
Starlink satellites are located much closer to the planet — about 340 miles from Earth — allowing them to transmit data back much faster. But, because they are so close to the globe, there needs to be more of them on orbit to provide blanket coverage.
That potentiality drew attention from the American Astronomical Society, which for the past six months has been collaborating with SpaceX to find a solution to the concerns of brightness.
“We are going to get it done,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, according to a report by SpaceNews.
The coating, though, is still untested. Following Monday’s launch, SpaceX will analyze how the addition of the coating affects the satellite’s thermal performance before applying it to others in future missions.