Elon Musk’s SpaceX is gearing up for a big flight Wednesday, when the company officially enters the space tourism business by launching four civilians to space on the. But another Falcon 9 launch Monday evening marks the beginning of the next phase of development for the company’s pioneering Starlink satellite broadband network.
SpaceX hasn’t launched any new Starlink flying routers since June 30. Two months is an exceptionally long pause for a program that has at times managed near-weekly launches to build up its nascent constellation of satellites in low-Earth orbit that aim to beam high-speed internet access around the globe.
To date, SpaceX has launched over 1,700 Starlinks, with thousands more planned for the years to come.
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell revealed at the Space Symposium in Colorado on Aug. 24 that the pause in Starlink deployment was to allow for the next batch of satellites to be fitted with laser links that enable the satellites to communicate with each other in orbit.
The laser crosslinks, something SpaceX has long touted as part of its Starlink plan, allow the network to operate with fewer ground stations and also are meant to reduce latency by letting data be routed around the constellation without having to make longer “hops” between the ground and orbit.
Ten satellites with laser links were launched to a polar orbit in January to avoid the need for ground stations near the poles. This small batch was the first equipped with the technology, but SpaceX hopes Monday’s launch will mark a transition to all Starlink satellites launched going forward carrying laser crosslinks.
The mission also marks a homecoming of sorts for Starlink as the first launch from California’s Vandenberg Space Force Base for the project since the first two test satellites,, lifted off from there on Feb. 22, 2018.
A Falcon 9 loaded with 51 of the next-generation Starlinks is scheduled to blast-off at 8:55 p.m. PT.
The first-stage booster that will be used has flown nine times before, including seven Starlink missions. This 10th flight of the same rocket will tie the company’s current mark for booster recycling. It will land on the droneship Of Course I Still Love You in the Pacific Ocean and be returned to port to see if it has an 11th flight in it at some point in the future.
The entire mission will be livestreamed by SpaceX and we’ll embed the feed here once it becomes available.