BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – A 230-foot SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket delivered dozens of Starlink internet satellites to orbit on Friday, just hours after astronauts returned from the International Space Station.
The 5:42 am ET launch from Kennedy Space Center’s pad 39A marked the 45th dedicated flight for Starlink, a SpaceX-built network of satellites that deliver internet connectivity to users on the ground. The rocket’s first stage, flying its 12th mission, was recovered by the Shortfall of Gravitas drone ship shortly after liftoff.
SpaceX has launched some 2,500 satellites for Starlink. Due to decaying orbits and malfunctions, however, the constellation stands at roughly 2,000 satellites.
The post-launch “jellyfish effect,” caused by the illumination of the rocket’s exhaust plume high in the atmosphere, did form as expected but was not visible from some popular viewing locations due to the thin layers of scattered clouds.
SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule return
Five hours before Falcon 9, meanwhile, four astronauts that launched from the same exact pad late last year safely returned to Earth in their SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.
NASA’s Kayla Barron, Raja Chari, Thomas Marshburn, and the European Space Agency’s Matthias Maurer touched down in the Gulf of Mexico at 12:43 am ET after six months aboard the International Space Station. Their Crew-3 mission was the fourth crewed flight for SpaceX under contract by NASA.
After teams recovered the Crew Dragon capsule named “Endurance,” the four astronauts were flown to the mainland via helicopter. Barron, Chari, and Marshburn hopped on a NASA jet destined for Houston, while Maurer caught a flight back to Europe.
The capsule splashed down into calm waters just off the coast of Tampa.
NASA looking at June for SLS test
NASA officials on Thursday, meanwhile, confirmed repair work on the Space Launch System moon rocket was proceeding as planned in KSC’s Vehicle Assembly Building.
If schedules hold, SLS could roll out to pad 39B a second time in the mid-to-late May timeframe, followed by more tests in early June. That timeline depends on figuring out two issues that impacted four previous attempts to fuel the rocket during the “wet dress rehearsal.”
The WDR is essentially a mock countdown that includes all hands practicing roles and making sure the rocket can handle fueling. The first attempts at conducting the test were cut short due to a second stage valve issue and problems with getting enough nitrogen from Air Liquide, an industrial gas producer that operates a plant just south of KSC.
After the previous tests, NASA officials decided to roll the SLS back to the VAB on April 26. The faulty helium valve was replaced, although officials noted a piece of rubber debris was found inside; teams are investigating its source.
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In the meantime, Air Liquide is beefing up its ability to provide nitrogen to pad 39B, a critical gas used to purge other gases from a specific area. Complicating the work is the fact that the company supplies nitrogen to the entire center along with the neighboring Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
“Our system has a higher demand because of the size of the vehicle,” Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems, told reporters during a teleconference. “I would say this is at the top of their priority list.”
“They’ve never done anything that’s affected a launch going all the way back through Apollo. I’m sure there’s no group that feels more responsible than this for them and the folks at Kennedy that work with them,” Free said.
If progress continues at its current pace, SLS could launch its debut mission – Artemis I – during a window that runs from August 23 to 29. Artemis I’s Orion capsule will fly without a crew as it orbits the moon and returns to Earth. All subsequent missions will include astronauts.
NASA’s Artemis program aims to put astronauts back on the moon by 2025.
Follow Emre Kelly on Twitter @EmreKelly.