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SpaceX Orbits Spain’s Paz and Its First Starlink Test Satellites

By Kendall Russell | February 22, 2018

SpaceX completed its third successful launch of 2018 this morning, orbiting the first two test satellites — Tintin A and B — for its Starlink broadband constellation, as well as a Spanish Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellite called Paz.

After a scrub Wednesday due to wind conditions, Falcon 9 lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California today at 9:17 a.m. EST. In a change from the norm, SpaceX elected not to recover the rocket’s first stage booster, which it had previously used to launch Taiwan’s Formsat 5 satellite last summer. This core, the last Block 3 variant SpaceX had yet to refly, has now been rendered obsolete by the company’s improved Block 4 design.

Instead, SpaceX attempted to recover the rocket’s upgraded (slightly larger) payload fairing. According to SpaceX founder Elon Musk, the fairing deployed a parafoil to slow its descent through the atmosphere, but still missed its target — a ship dubbed Mr. Steven outfitted with a “giant catcher’s mitt” — by a few hundred meters.

The Paz satellite is an X-band SAR spacecraft designed to serve Spain’s security and defense needs. The satellite is an integral part of Spain’s Space Strategic Plan first implemented in 2007; its mission is funded and owned by Spain’s Ministry of Defense, and managed by Hisdesat. According to the satellite’s manufacturer, Airbus, Paz will be positioned in the same orbit as the German-owned TerraSAR X and TanDEM X satellites to form a high-resolution SAR constellation. The addition of the third satellite will reduce revisit time and increase acquisition capacity. Paz also carries an Automatic Identification System (AIS), allowing it to simultaneously capture ships’ AIS signals and SAR imagery to improve maritime domain monitoring.

SpaceX’s Tintin A and B satellites are a precursor to the company’s full broadband constellation in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), set for full deployment by 2024. Last November, SpaceX Vice President of Satellite Government Affairs Patricia Cooper confirmed that SpaceX intends to begin offering commercial broadband services with as few as 800 satellites on orbit. SpaceX is also planning to launch an additional constellation of 7,500 V-band satellites in Very Low Earth Orbit (VLEO) to further reduce latency in high-population areas.