A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket thundered to life and streaked away from Cape Canaveral on Thursday night, boosting a Turkish communications satellite into orbit to kick off another busy year for the California rocket company.
The launching set the stage for the Monday return to Earth of an unpiloted Dragon cargo ship carrying research samples and equipment from the International Space Station and a presumed test flight by a prototype Starship upper stage from SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas, launch site.
Last year, SpaceX launched 26 Falcon 9 rockets, including two piloted Crew Dragon missions that ferried six astronauts to the International Space Station, two unpiloted Dragon cargo ships to the lab and 14 Starlink flights that put 833 internet relay satellites into orbit.
The company is expected to attempt 40 or more Falcon 9 flights in 2021, including another NASA Crew Dragon flight to the station and, possibly, a fully commercial flight carrying four non-NASA astronauts.
The company kicked off its 2021 launch campaign at 9:15 p.m. ET Thursday when the nine Merlin engines powering a previously flown Falcon 9 first stage roared to life at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
Generating 1.7 million pounds of thrust, the 229-foot-tall two-stage rocket blasted off from pad 40 and climbed away to the east, knifing through a mostly clear sky and putting on a spectacular show for area residents and tourists.
The first stage, making its fourth flight, boosted the rocket out of the lower atmosphere before falling away and flying itself down to landing on a SpaceX droneship stationed several hundred miles from Cape Canaveral. It was SpaceX’s 71st successful booster recovery and its 49th on an off-shore droneship.
The second stage, meanwhile, continued the climb to space, carrying out two firings of its single engines before releasing the Turksat 5A communications satellite 33 minutes after liftoff.
The 7,500-pound relay station, built by Airbus Defense and Space for Turksat, was deployed into a highly elliptical “transfer” orbit and will use on-board plasma thrusters over the next four months to reach its operational altitude 22,300 miles above the equator.
Orbiting in lockstep with Earth’s rotation, the satellite’s 42 transponders will provide commercial broadband data relay and direct TV broadcasting services across Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa. A second satellite, Turksat 5B, is scheduled for launch later this year.