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SpaceX Falcon 9 launch
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from its Florida launch pad. (SpaceX via YouTube)

After weeks of delay, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket sent up 57 more satellites for its Starlink broadband internet constellation, with two BlackSky planet-watching satellites hitching a ride.

The launch was originally scheduled for June, but had to be put off several times due to technical concerns, weather delays and range schedule conflicts. This time around, the countdown proceeded smoothly to liftoff from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 1:12 a.m. ET Aug. 7 (10:12 p.m..PT Aug. 6).

Minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9’s second stage separated from the first-stage booster and headed onward to orbit. The booster flew itself back to a touchdown on a drone ship stationed in the Atlantic Ocean — a rocket recovery procedure that has now become routine. The satellites were successfully deployed from the second stage over the course of an hour and a half.

SpaceX’s Starlink satellites were manufactured at the company’s facility in Redmond, Wash. They represent the first full batch of spacecraft outfitted with sunshades to reduce the glare from their antennas. The “Visor Sat” design was developed to respond to concerns about past satellites’ interference with astronomical observations.

Nearly 600 Starlink spacecraft are now in orbit, thanks to this 10th launch in a series. That brings SpaceX ever closer to the start of limited commercial service, which was promised as early as this year. Eventually, Starlink aims to provide global broadband internet access, and there are military applications as well.

BlackSky, which has offices in Seattle as well as Virginia, arranged to have two of its 110-pound Earth observation satellites flown on this mission with Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc.’s assistance, under the terms of SpaceX’s Smallsat Rideshare Program. These are the fifth and sixth satellites in what’s expected to amount to a 16-satellite Global constellation by early next year.

They’re the first satellites to be built for BlackSky at LeoStella’s factory in Tukwila, Wash. BlackSky is a subsidiary of Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries, while LeoStella is a 50-50 joint venture involving Spaceflight Industries and Europe’s Thales Alenia Space.

BlackSky’s Global satellites are already providing rapid-response pictures of Earth, as demonstrated by this week’s release of imagery showing the devastation in Beirut within 24 hours of the deadly blast. The venture is one of the recipients of study contracts from the National Reconnaissance Office, which is assessing the use of commercial Earth imagery for national security purposes.

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