SpaceX successfully launched 60 Starlink communication satellites aboard a Falcon 9 late yesterday. The launch brings the total number of Starlink satellites in orbit to well over 400.
The mission was launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 19:30 UTC on April 22. Following the launch, the 60 Starlink satellites were deployed into orbit.
In response to the confirmation of the deployment of all 60 satellites, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted, “There are now 420 operational Starlink satellites ??.” The comment is a play on an internet meme that associates the number 420 with smoking weed, a pastime Musk was criticized for after he smoked a joint on a popular podcast hosted by comedian Joe Rogan.
Despite Musk’s proclamation, his count seems to be more for the meme than a reflection of reality. Indeed a total of 420 satellites have been launched over 7 Starlink missions. However, three have been deorbited and 5 are believed to be dead in orbit according to Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. As a result, the count is likely closer to 412 active Starlink satellites.
Regardless of the specifics, SpaceX continues to grow a constellation that made the company the largest satellite operator in the world several launches ago. The work is far from complete though. The smallest iteration of the Starlink constellation calls for over 1,500 satellites to offer the most basic coverage. Once complete, this will skyrocket to over 12,000.
In addition to breaking records with the Starlink constellation, the launch was also one for the record books for the Falcon 9, which became the most-flown currently operational US rocket. The SpaceX workhorse overtook the Atlas 5 rocket’s 83 launches. The Atlas 5 does, however, still have it beat for reliability.
Over its 83 missions, the Atlas 5 has suffered a single partial failure that did not preclude a successful deployment of its payload. The Falcon 9 just misses out having suffered one partial failure and one high profile failure that resulted in the loss of the CRS-7 space station resupply mission.