Starlink, SpaceX's internet connectivity constellation, is taking shape.
On Wednesday, CEO Elon Musk shared video footage on his Twitter page of the fairing deploy sequence. This critical step shows the protective covering moving away from the payload, enabling the 60 satellites sent up during the mission to deploy. SpaceX's video title refers to this as "Starlink 7," suggesting it's footage from the seventh mission to send up 60 non-test satellites on June 4.
It's a key step toward SpaceX's dream of a giant constellation of internet satellites, providing gigabit internet speeds. Starlink is designed to orbit at 550 kilometers above the Earth's surface, lower than many other satellites, a move that's designed to reduce the latency for internet users. Current satellite internet firms, like Starlink, can provide access to practically anywhere on Earth with a view of the satellites in the sky. But while traditional services offer latencies in the hundreds of milliseconds, SpaceX is aiming to reduce latency to below 10 milliseconds, a lightning-fast reaction time that would make it ideal for applications like video games.
To bring these satellites down so low, SpaceX is filling the sky with more satellites than any other constellation. It's so far launched 482 satellites over nine launches, starting with two test satellites in February 2018, then 60 "production design" ones in May 2019, then the seven non-test batches. It's applied for permission to launch up to 42,000 satellites. The total number of satellites in the sky total was somewhere around 5,000 at the start of 2019, meaning this would be a mass expansion of the number of satellites in the sky.
With this new fairing deployment, this vision took another step closer to reality.
Following the fairing deployment, the protective covering made its way back to Earth. SpaceX attempted to catch the two halves of the fairing, using its ships Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief. Recovering the fairing could save up to $6 million on the $62 million price tag of rocket launches, another step toward making spaceflight more affordable. SpaceX did not provide an update on the fairing after launch.
One aspect of the mission that was a notable success, however, was saving the booster. This technique could save an estimated $46.5 million from the price of each launch. The booster used for the June 4 mission successfully landed on the Just Read the Instructions droneship in the Atlantic Ocean. This marked the first time that the same booster had successfully flown and landed five times.
The mission also came in the same week that Falcon 9 celebrated its 10th anniversary of its first rocket flight. SpaceX's debut of the rocket kickstarted a new decade of satellite launches, cementing the firm as a mainstay in the rocket business and laying the groundwork for future vehicles like the Starship. This fully-reusable rocket could pave the way for missions like a city on Mars.
The Inverse analysis – SpaceX has worked hard to develop a means of re-using the fairing from its missions. In April 2018, Musk suggested using a giant party balloon to catch the fairing as it fell to Earth. More recent efforts have involved a net attached to the back of a ship, a slightly more grounded method of recovery.
These efforts have led to some fantastic video footage. A July 2019 video showed a fairing shining bright blue as it made its way to Earth, as blue particles in the atmosphere heated up during its return journey.
As SpaceX continues to record its fairing efforts, expect more dramatic footage in the future.