SpaceX has successfully launched an ambitious mission to deploy 64 satellites into Earth orbit – while also setting new records for launches and landings alike.
The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 10.32am Pacific time (6.32pm UTC) today, December 3, taking its multiple payloads into low-Earth orbit. About eight minutes after launching, the first stage of the rocket successfully landed on the drone ship Just Read The Instructions, something that’s well beyond being routine by now.
But importantly, this was the first time one of SpaceX’s first stage boosters had successfully flown three times, a major step in the company’s goal of making their rockets reusable. This booster previously flew on May 11, 2018, taking the Bangabandhu-1 satellite for Bangladesh into orbit, and the launch of the Merah Putih satellite for Indonesia on August 7, 2018.
It’s not just the booster making the headlines, though. Because with 64 satellites on an impressive rideshare mission, SpaceX is taking a whole host of different missions into orbit. This is the second most satellites ever taken on a single launch, after India launched 104 satellites on February 15, 2017.
The mission was put together by the Seattle-based company Spaceflight Industries, known as the SSO-A rideshare mission. Some of the satellites on board included a memorial spacecraft containing the ashes of 100 people, and an experiment to try and grow tomatoes in orbit.
The satellites will be placed into a near-polar orbit about 550 kilometers (340 miles) above the surface of Earth, specifically known as a sun-synchronous orbit – hence the SSO moniker. Most will be left to tumble here, with no propulsion of their own.
Small satellites, like microsats or CubeSats, often fly as secondary payloads on other missions. But this is unique in that all of these small missions are flying together, with no one satellite acting as the primary payload. Together they weigh a total of 4,000 kilograms (8,800 pounds).
In a mission of many records, this flight also heralded SpaceX’s best ever year for launches. It has now launched 19 rockets this year, eclipsing its previous record of 18 in 2017. This was also the 32nd landing for SpaceX in its history.
And it’s not over yet. Because tomorrow, December 4, the company is set to launch a Dragon cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS). And they have another flight planned for December 18, the launch of a GPS satellite for the US Air Force. Not bad for a company that formed just 16 years ago.
Following the launch, SpaceX also attempted to recover the payload fairing of the rocket – the nosecone that protects the satellites on the way to space – on a boat called Mr. Steven. At the time of writing, however, SpaceX had not yet confirmed if that recovery was successful.
But regardless, this mission broke so many different records that it’s difficult to know which to focus on. The first reflight of a Falcon 9 booster for a third time, the most launches for SpaceX in a year, and the most satellites ever flown by a US company in a single launch. Take your pick.