Science

SpaceX rocket launches BlueWalker 3, largest commercial communications array, and aces make 14th landing

SpaceX launched a new — and colossal — commercial communications satellite into orbit late Saturday night and at the same time set a new launch record for its Falcon 9 rocket.

Falcon 9 launched into orbit from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida carrying 34 SpaceX Starlink and BlueWalker 3 internet satellites, a prototype satellite built by AST SpaceMobile that is believed to be the largest commercial communications array ever launched into space. Liftoff was at 9:20 pm EDT (0120 GMT) on Saturday night (September 10), when the Falcon 9 booster made SpaceX history when it returned to Earth.

Related: SpaceX Starlink Mega Constellation Launches in Photos

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on September 10, 2022, carrying 34 Starlink satellites and the huge BlueWalker 3 satellite. (Image credit: SpaceX)

“This is a record 14th landing for this launch vehicle,” Jesse Anderson, SpaceX’s production manager, said during a live commentary. (will open in a new tab).

The mission also set several other records.

It was SpaceX’s first five-engine mission to deploy an in-orbit payload, as well as the company’s heaviest payload ever. (The BlueWalker 3 weighs a whopping 3,300 pounds (1,500 kg), Anderson said.)

“One of our most challenging missions,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted about the flight. (will open in a new tab).

Meet BlueWalker 3 by AST SpaceMobile

While SpaceX’s primary goal for Saturday’s launch was to add 34 new Starlink satellites to its growing constellation in orbit, AST SpaceMobile’s BlueWalker 3 satellite stood out both for its size and ambitious mission.

The satellite, whose unfolded area will be 64 square meters, is the largest commercial antenna array launched into space. Its mission: to test a new technology designed to provide global cellular services directly to users from space. The goal is to fill coverage gaps and provide uninterrupted high-speed telephone and data communications in underserved areas.

“The reason our satellite is big is because to communicate with a low power phone with low internal strength, you just need a big antenna on one side with a lot of power, and that’s an important part of our infrastructure. “AST SpaceMobile Chief Strategy Officer Scott Wisniewski told Space.com in an interview. “We think it’s really important to communicate directly with regular phones, without changing phones and without additional burden on the user.”

It will be weeks before AST SpaceMobile instructs BlueWalker 3 to deploy the spring-loaded antenna, Wisniewski said. He added that during that time, the company will conduct a series of health checks to ensure the satellite is up and running.

Artistic illustration of AST SpaceMobile’s BlueWalker 3 mobile satellite service in orbit. (Image credit: Nokia/AST SpaceMobile)

AST SpaceMobile is partnering with 25 cell service providers, 10 of which will take part in the company’s planned six-month BlueWalker 3 cruise to test its capabilities on six continents around the world. These partners include providers such as Vodaphone, Rakuten Mobile and Orange, with a potential reach of 1.8 million phone users, Wisniewski said. Earlier this summer, the company received an FCC license to test the BlueWalker 3 service in Texas and Hawaii in the United States.

To provide full coverage, AST SpaceMobile will need more than one satellite. “This is sort of the culmination of our company’s R&D phase before we start manufacturing satellites next year,” Wisniewski said.

The BlueWalker 3 satellite is deployed on Earth. It is the largest commercial communications system sent into space. (Image credit: SpaceX)

The company plans to follow BlueWalker 3 with five operational satellites in 2023. Ultimately, it aims to create a constellation of at least 100 giant satellites to ensure complete coverage.

AST SpaceMobile is not alone in its quest to provide cellular communications from space. Lynk Global is working on a similar project, and Elon Musk announced last month that SpaceX is teaming up with T-Mobile to provide cellular services using its Starlink satellites.

Because of their size, SpaceMobile’s AST satellites can be visible to skywatchers from the ground, according to a New Scientist report, and some astronomers have criticized the plan for its potential impact on the telescope’s observations from the ground. (will open in a new tab). If this complaint sounds familiar, it’s because it was stalking SpaceX’s own Starlink constellation when that company began launching dozens of such satellites at the same time.

SpaceX’s most popular Falcon 9 rocket is seen aboard the unmanned Shortfall Of Gravitas in the Atlantic Ocean after its 14th launch and landing on September 10, 2022. (Image credit: SpaceX)

Approximately 8.5 minutes after the launch of the BlueWalker 3 and Starlink satellites, the first stage of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket returned to Earth for a precision landing on the company’s A Shortfall Of Gravitas drone in the Atlantic Ocean. The landing set a new record for the most Falcon 9 rocket launches.

Before Saturday’s flight, the Falcon 9 stage launched eight different Starlink missions, as well as the first SpaceX astronaut test flight for NASA (called Demo-2) in May 2020; ANASIS-2 satellite for South Korea in July 2020; the CRS-21 unmanned cargo mission to the International Space Station for NASA in December 2020, and the joint Transporter 1 and Transporter 3 missions in January 2021 and January 2022, respectively.

When Elon Musk unveiled the workhorse Falcon 9 Block 5 in 2018, he said SpaceX’s goal was to launch them at least 10 times. With each successive flight, the company has pushed the boundaries of reusable rockets as part of its efforts to reduce the cost of space travel.

A view of 34 Starlink satellites aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket during launch on September 10, 2022. (Image credit: SpaceX)

Similarly, SpaceX has continued to increase the size of its Starlink constellation, as well as the number of countries and coverage areas, in recent years. In August, Royal Caribbean announced (will open in a new tab) by 2023, it will use Starlink aboard all of its cruise ships, and SpaceX already offers service to RVs, boats and homes around the world.

The company has launched more than 3,200 satellites since 2019, with thousands more to come. SpaceX plans to complete its initial constellation with 12,000 Starlink satellites in orbit and has applied for permission to increase that number to 30,000 satellites.

On Sunday, September 11, SpaceX plans to launch another Starlink mission. This flight, which will carry 54 Starlink satellites, is scheduled to launch from Spaceport 40 at the Space Force Station at Cape Canaveral in Florida at 22:53 EDT (0253 GMT). You will be able to watch this launch live on Space.com during launch.

Saturday’s launch marked the 41st year for SpaceX. It was the 179th launch of the company as a whole.

Email Tariq Malik at tmalik@ or follow him @tariqjmalik. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Instagram.

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