After multiple delays due to weather and technical problemsSpaceX finally launched on Sunday a Falcon Heavy rocket carrying a competitor’s Internet satellite, the first of three next-generation data relay stations capable of terabyte-per-second performance.
After a final hour delay due to gusty winds, SpaceX’s most powerful operational rocket came to life at 8:26 p.m. EDT and lifted off Kennedy Space Center’s historic pad 39A with more than 5 million pounds of thrust .
Powered by 27 Merlin engines in three Falcon 9 first stage boosters strapped together, the Falcon Heavy accelerated rapidly as it used up its kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants and lost weight. After initially soaring upward, the rocket arced on an easterly trajectory, putting on a spectacular early evening show for area residents and tourists.
SpaceX normally salvages first-stage boosters for refurbishment and reuse, but all available propellant was needed Sunday to get the 13,000-pound ViaSat-3 satellite into its planned orbit.
As a result, all three core stages were scrapped to fall into the ocean more than 50 miles below after propelling the rocket out of the lower atmosphere.
The single engine powering the Falcon Heavy’s upper stage shut down eight minutes after launch, putting the vehicle into an initial parking orbit. Two more launches were planned over the next three hours and 44 minutes to put the satellite into the planned geosynchronous orbit 22,300 miles above the equator.
Sunday’s flight capped off a busy day for SpaceX, which launched 46 of its low-altitude Starlink internet satellites from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on Thursday. The company then launched two medium-altitude broadband satellites for Luxembourg-based SES on Friday from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
All three launches highlight the ongoing race to deploy space-based Internet towers to provide broadband access to customers anywhere in the world, including rural, hard-to-reach or underserved areas, as well as aircraft and ships in sea.
The Starlink satellites are part of a rapidly growing constellation of small, low-altitude laser-linked satellites designed, built and operated by SpaceX to provide high-speed, low-latency Internet to users anywhere in the world.
Thousands of Starlinks are needed to ensure that multiple fast moving satellites are above a user’s horizon at any given time to provide uninterrupted service. The satellites receive user input and send it to nearby Starlinks for transmission to “gateway” ground stations connected to high-speed data lines. The answers are then returned to the user.
ViaSat is taking a different approach, stationing the satellites in orbits 22,300 miles high above the equator where they rotate in lockstep with the planet below and thus appear stationary in the sky. Three of these ViaSat-3 satellites are designed to provide space-based global Internet access on a hemispherical scale.
The powerful satellites are equipped with massive solar arrays that generate 25 kilowatts of power and span 144 feet from tip to tip when fully open.
Capable of handling up to 1 terabyte of data per second, the satellites feature the largest satellite dish ever launched on a commercial satellite. Once on the station, the huge mesh reflector will unfold atop an 80- to 90-foot-long telescopic boom based on technology developed for the James Webb Space Telescope.
Hopefully, the first ViaSat-3 will provide Internet access to customers in the Western Hemisphere starting this summer. Two more satellites, which will cover Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific, are expected to be launched in the next two years.
“If you’re a low Earth orbit (provider), by definition, to stay in orbit, you’re going to be screaming across the sky pretty fast. So your ground-based terminal has to be more complicated .. … and more expensive,” he told CBS News David Ryan, president of ViaSat’s commercial and space networks.
“The other benefit of geosynchronous orbit is that you can see one third of the Earth with one satellite. So with one launch, one satellite, you can potentially connect to one third of the Earth. And that’s the principle behind ViaSat-3. “
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