Just two weeks after launching a Tesla Roadster into space in the maiden flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket, SpaceX got back to business Thursday, launching a Falcon 9 carrying a $200 million Spanish radar imaging satellite and two experimental internet relay stations, pathfinders for SpaceX’s proposed mega-network of orbital broadband beacons.
Running a day late because of high upper level winds, the 229-foot-tall rocket blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., at 9:17 a.m. EST, streaking away to the south over the Pacific Ocean as it climbed toward an orbit around Earth’s poles.
The rocket’s first stage — the ninth previously flown SpaceX booster to make a second flight — powered the vehicle out of the thick lower atmosphere and then fell away two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff. No attempt was made to recover the used rocket, which fell back to Earth and crashed into the Pacific.
The company did presumably attempt to recover the nose cone panels that protected the satellite payload during the early moments of the flight using a custom-designed recovery ship stationed down range from the launch site. But SpaceX provided no immediate confirmation.
PAZ will work in concert with two other synthetic aperture radar satellites already in orbit, TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X, to provide very high resolution imagery and to shorten the time between overflights of high-priority targets.
While PAZ was the primary payload for Thursday’s launch, much of the attention on the flight went to the secondary payloads, two SpaceX-developed orbital broadband prototypes known as Microsat-2a and Microsat-2b.
SpaceX did not mention the satellites in its press kit, but the company said in a Feb. 1 letter to the Federal Communications Commission that the 880-pound relay stations would be aboard. And on Wednesday, SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted the Falcon 9 “carries 2 SpaceX test satellites for global broadband. If successful, Starlink constellation will serve least served.”
In an FCC application last year, SpaceX proposed a vast network — Starlink — of up to 4,425 small satellites, orbiting at altitudes between 689 and 823 miles, broadcasting internet content in high-speed Ku- and Ka-band frequencies. The company also has proposed launching more than 7,500 satellites in lower 210-mile-high orbits using different frequencies.
SpaceX faces stiff competition from OneWeb, a company that plans to launch more than 800 330-pound satellites. They will be built on a production line in an $85 million 100,000-square-foot factory near the Kennedy Space Center. OneWeb plans to launch its first spacecraft later this year from French Guiana atop a Soyuz rocket.
The FCC already approved OneWeb’s proposal as well as another for a network being developed in Canada by Telesat.