A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches 49 of the company's Starlink satellites from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday. Photo courtesy of SpaceX
ORLANDO, Fla., Jan. 6 (UPI) -- SpaceX kicked off a surge in launch activity Thursday with the successful launch of 49 of the company's Starlink communications satellites from Florida, heading south along the state's coastline.
Five SpaceX missions may launch in the next month on the southern polar trajectory, flying closer to the Florida coast toward Miami than most launches, according to the U.S. Space Force.
The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off as planned at 4:49 p.m. EST from Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center. Nine minutes after launch, the first-stage booster landed successfully on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean.
"Starlink is now live in 25 countries and regions currently servicing over 145,000 users worldwide," SpaceX engineer Jessie Anderson said during a live broadcast of the launch.
"We're flying in the south ... trajectory to increase recovery weather availability for both the booster and fairing during the winter months," Anderson said.
Officials are asking boaters and aircraft to be especially vigilant to avoid the southern flight paths, which are announced in maritime and aviation notices, U.S. Space Force Lt. Col. Brian Eno, commander of the 1st Range Operations Squad, part of Space Launch Delta 45, said in an interview with UPI.
Space Launch Delta 45 is responsible for regional launch activities.
"We really want to make sure that the community understands that this is different, because most rockets launched here travel east over the Atlantic, but we will see a lot more launching south this year, and that means a different set of conditions or awareness and for accommodating air traffic and marine traffic," Eno said.
The government requires boaters and aviators to stay away from restricted launch areas, and those areas will be changing for some of the southern launches, he said.
Thursday's launch restriction zones weren't much different than traditional Cape launch zones, he said. But two launches SpaceX plans in January will see restricted areas extended 26 miles south for boats and 172 miles south for planes.
SpaceX launched a record number of rockets in 2021, at 31 missions from Florida and California. But the Space Force anticipates 66 launches in 2022 from Florida alone, Eno said.
"We want to make sure that nothing is taken for granted, that nobody thinks launches only happen a certain way or direction off the Cape, because there is so much more activity," Eno said.
Rockets sometimes head south from the Cape because they aim to achieve a polar orbit, over the North and South Poles, rather than an equatorial orbit, Moriba Jah, associate professor of aerospace engineering the University of Texas at Austin, told UPI in a phone interview.
SpaceX has launched more than 1,800 Starlink satellites in dozens of missions over the past few years, while new space companies like Rocket Lab have emerged. With more satellites in orbit, companies seek new locations for them, Jah said.
"There is really a new space race, just like with a gold rush, and we're putting more and more of our technological infrastructure in space," Jah said. "And so you've seen this increase in the launches and number of satellites for sure."
Some space companies, like SpaceX's Starlink service, seek to cover most of the globe with their services. To do so, they must travel around the poles in order to take images or beam signals from extreme northern or southern latitudes, he said.
"Sea and air traffic may suffer as a consequence of these launches because of safety reasons, but efforts are under way to minimize the impact of interruptions," he said.
The International Space Station is pictured from the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour during a flyaround of the orbiting lab that took place following its undocking from the Harmony module’s space-facing port on November 8. Photo courtesy of NASA