SpaceX takes southern route for Starlink satellite launch

SpaceX launched another round of Starlink satellites Tuesday evening, and the southern rocket trajectory meant more people likely saw the Falcon 9 headed to space.

Elon Musk's private space company launched one of its Falcon 9 rockets from Kennedy Space Center launchpad 39A at 9:04 p.m. Inside the rocket nose cone were 49 internet-beaming Starlink satellites. 

Florida is experiencing some of its coldest winter weather, with brisk temperatures barely making it above 60 degrees by midday. It was in the 50s on the Space Coast for Tuesday's launch.

Forecasters with the Space Force 45th Weather Squadron in Cape Canaveral gave the liftoff a nearly 100% chance of good weather. It was scheduled for 7:04 p.m., but SpaceX pushed it by two hours.

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"Skies will continue to be mostly cloud-free and with winds becoming light and variable, making excellent weather conditions for a Tuesday evening launch attempt," according to the launch forecast.

The rocket booster has previously launched nine times, including six other dedicated Starlink missions. Even both halves of the rocket fairings, or nose cone, have previously launched Starlinks to space.

About eight minutes after liftoff, the booster returned to Earth again, touching down on the automated landing ship called A Shortfall of Gravitas. The droneship was located in the Atlantic Ocean, far enough offshore the booster return couldn't be seen from land.

RELATED: SpaceX sends Falcon 9 into orbit carrying 49 Starlink satellites

After launch, the rocket traveled south down Florida's coast, known as a polar trajectory. The majority of launches travel in the same direction as Earth's rotation. Still, when spacecraft need to orbit Earth's poles, it often requires a southern launch trajectory, according to the Space Delta 45, which oversees launches on the Eastern Range.


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Time-lapse photo of the third Falcon 9 Starlink launch.

Early this year, Space Launch Delta 45 alerted the public that it will be supporting multiple southerly trajectory launches in 2022. Previously, most polar launches happened from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base. 

"Due to the unique southerly trajectories, there will be a larger potential impact to air and sea traffic along the southeast coast of Florida," said Maj. Jonathan Szul, Director of Operations at the 1st Range Operations Squadron at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. "We ask that all pilots and mariners double-check their Notices to Airmen and Notices to Mariners to ensure they are fully aware of all pending launch activities in this historic month on the Space Coast." 

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Three polar missions launched from Florida in the last year and a half. According to SLD 45, there are five planned in January. SpaceX's first launch of the year also took this rare route.

The mission marks the 35th dedicated SpaceX launch to build out the Starlink internet constellation. About 1,800 satellites operate in low-Earth orbit, providing internet to customers in more than a dozen countries, including remote Canada. 

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