Watch SpaceX Launch 64 Satellites Aboard a Twice-Used Rocket

The “SmallSat Express” mission is launching a space sculpture and 63 other small satellites, making it the largest satellite launch in US history.

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Dec 3 2018, 5:45pm

This rocket has flown to space and back two times already. Image: SpaceX

UPDATE, 1:57pm 12/3/2018: SpaceX successfully launched and landed the same Falcon 9 first stage rocket booster for the third time. It also completed its primary mission of delivering 64 satellites to low Earth orbit.

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The Falcon 9 rocket after touching down on the drone ship 'Of Course I Still Love You' on December 3, 2018. Image: YouTube


On Monday afternoon SpaceX is expected to launch a rocket containing 64 small satellites, the most satellites ever lifted to orbit by an American rocket.

The “SmallSat Express” launch is historic for another reason, too. The rocket itself is using a booster that has already flown to space and back—twice. SpaceX has been reusing the first stages of its Falcon 9 rockets since early 2017, but so far the company has only reused boosters that have been flown one time previously.

The launch will be a major step toward SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s goal of reusing a rocket booster within 24 hours, which he said he hopes to achieve in 2019.

The SmallSat Express mission will carry 64 micro sattelllites and CubeSats developed by over 30 different organizations. Some of the more interesting mission profiles include an ocean monitoring system developed by the University of North Carolina and a trio of cubesats developed by the Virginia-based company HawkEye 360, which will track pirate radio signals on Earth.

There is also a piece of space art on board, developed by the artist Trevor Paglen. Paglen’s artwork consists of a CubeSat that will deploy a 100-foot reflective balloon that will be visible from Earth. Despite the artist’s intentions to inspire people with his sculpture, it has also drawn the ire of astronomers who liken the project to space trash that makes it harder to do astronomy.

A rendering of Paglen’s “Orbital Reflector”. Image: Trevor Paglen
A rendering of Paglen’s “Orbital Reflector”. Image: Trevor Paglen

The flight’s real importance, for SpaceX at least, is that it marks another step forward for Musk’s goal of reusing a rocket booster within 24 hours. This is an ambitious goal given that, so far, three months have separated each launch for the booster being used on the SmallSat Express mission. This booster was first flown in May to launch Bangladesh’s first telecommunications satellite into orbit and was then flown again in August to launch an Indonesian telecom satellite.

“So far, we’ve only flown a booster twice,” Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of flight reliability, told an audience at the International Astronautical Congress in October. “Beginning soon, we will start flying a booster three times, and then take it to four times, five times, an so on and so forth. We have obviously to be very careful in evaluating boosters that come back after multiple flights. We want to make sure that we don’t see wear-and-tear in the wrong spots.”

The SmallSat Express has been plagued by setbacks. The mission was originally supposed to launch in early November and has been pushed back four times due to system anomalies and unfavorable weather. According to SpaceX, all the rocket’s systems are now functioning well and the weather looks favorable for today’s launch.

The SmallSat Express mission will launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in northern California and land on one of SpaceX’s autonomous drone ships in the Pacific Ocean. The 28-minute launch window opens a 1:32 pm ET and you can watch it live below: