BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. — A 230-foot SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched dozens of Starlink Internet satellites into orbit Friday, just hours after astronauts returned from the International Space Station.
The 5:42 am ET launch from Kennedy Space Center’s Pad 39A marked the 45th flight of Starlink, a network of satellites built by SpaceX that provides Internet connectivity to users on the ground. The first stage of the rocket, flying on its 12th mission, was retrieved by the Shortfall of Gravitas drone shortly after liftoff.
SpaceX has launched some 2,500 satellites for Starlink. However, due to deteriorating orbits and malfunctions, the constellation has approximately 2,000 satellites.
A post-launch “jellyfish effect,” caused by illumination from the rocket’s exhaust plume high in the atmosphere, formed as expected, but was not visible from some popular viewing spots due to thin cloud layers. scattered.
Return of the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule
Meanwhile, five hours before Falcon 9, four astronauts who launched from the exact same pad late last year returned safely to Earth in their SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.
Kayla Barron, Raja Chari, NASA’s Thomas Marshburn and the European Space Agency’s Matthias Maurer touched down in the Gulf of Mexico at 12:43 am ET after six months aboard the International Space Station. Its Crew-3 mission was SpaceX’s fourth manned flight under contract to NASA.
After crews recovered the Crew Dragon capsule called “Endurance,” the four astronauts were airlifted to dry land by helicopter. Barron, Chari and Marshburn boarded a NASA jet bound for Houston, while Maurer flew back to Europe.
The capsule fell into calm waters off the coast of Tampa.
NASA looks to June for SLS test
Meanwhile, NASA officials confirmed Thursday that repair work on the Space Launch System moon rocket was proceeding as planned at KSC’s Vehicle Assembly Building.
If schedules hold, SLS could be implemented at Landfill 39B for a second time in mid to late May, followed by further testing in early June. That timeline hinges on resolving two problems that plagued four previous attempts to fuel the rocket during “dress rehearsal.”
The WDR is essentially a simulated countdown that includes all hands practicing roles and making sure the rocket can handle the fuel. Early attempts at testing were cut short by a problem with the second-stage valve and problems getting enough nitrogen from Air Liquide, an industrial gas producer that operates a plant just south of KSC.
After earlier tests, NASA officials decided to roll SLS back to VAB on April 26. The faulty helium valve was replaced, although officials noted that traces of rubber were found inside; teams are investigating its origin.
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Meanwhile, Air Liquide is beefing up its ability to provide pad 39B with nitrogen, a critical gas used to purge other gases from a specific area. To complicate the job, the company supplies nitrogen to the entire center in conjunction with the neighboring Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
“Our system is in higher demand due to the size of the vehicle,” Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems, told reporters during a teleconference. “I would say this is at the top of his priority list.”
“They have never done anything that has affected a launch from Apollo. I’m sure there is no group that feels more responsible than this for them and the Kennedy people who work with them,” Free said.
If progress continues at the current rate, SLS could launch its debut mission, Artemis I, during a window that runs from August 23-29. Artemis I’s Orion capsule will fly unmanned as it orbits the moon and returns to Earth. All subsequent missions will include astronauts.
NASA’s Artemis program aims to put astronauts back on the moon by 2025.
Follow Emre Kelly on Twitter @EmreKelly.