The extra-sooty Falcon 9 rocket — whose first stage had already flown three times before today's mission — lifted off at 3:30 p.m. EDT (1930 GMT) from Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center here, its white exterior marred by its previous trips through the atmosphere. The launch marked the 84th Falcon 9 flight, making SpaceX's workhorse rocket the most flown U.S. rocket in use today.
The rocket featured in today's flight joins the ranks of SpaceX's four-time fliers, having started its career by launching the Crew Dragon capsule on its first journey to the space station in 2019, an uncrewed flight called Demo-1. The booster then lofted a trio of Canadian Earth-observing satellites and the fourth Starlink mission earlier this year.
"We have a rocket," SpaceX engineer Lauren Lyons said during a webcast of today's launch. "This is the fourth landing for this booster."
It was smooth sailing for SpaceX's Starlink satellites in today's launch, unlike the company's last flight. On that mission, one of the nine first-stage engines on the Falcon 9 shut down early. SpaceX engineers later determined that a small amount of isopropyl alcohol (a cleaning agent) was trapped in an area it could not flow through, causing the early engine shutdown.
Today's flight is the seventh operational Starlink mission, bringing the total number of satellites launched for the nascent broadband network up to 422. According to SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk, the company has plans to deorbit its two Starlink test satellites (Tin Tin A and Tin Tin B), which launched as part of a rideshare mission in 2018.
Musk has also said that at least 400 Starlink craft are needed before SpaceX can begin to roll out minimal internet coverage, and the company requires at least 800 satellites to provide moderate coverage. That service could start later this year.
The Starlink launch is one for the record books in a number of ways. First, today's flight marks the third time SpaceX has reflown recycled payload fairing pieces, which make up the "nose cone" that protects payloads during liftoff. Historically, the clam-shelled covering is a "one-and-done" component.
Once a rocket reaches a certain point in its ascent, the two pieces that make up SpaceX fairings are jettisoned and fall back to Earth. Typically, these pieces are discarded in the ocean, never to be used again. But for SpaceX, which has now successfully recovered more than 50 first-stage boosters, they’re the next step in the company’s quest to reuse more of the rocket.
SpaceX could save as much as $6 million per flight by reusing fairings, Musk has said. So, the company has outfitted its fairings with a navigation system to steer each half back to Earth and a parachute to help it gently land in either the ocean or in the outstretched nets of the company's recovery ships, GO Ms. Tree and GO Ms. Chief.
Of those vessels, only GO Ms. Tree (the boat formerly known as Mr. Steven) has successfully snagged falling fairings. SpaceX did not attempt fairing net snags today, because the company's boat and fairing software are being upgraded at the moment, company representatives said during today's launch webcast.
The fairing featured on today's flight was first used on the AMOS-17 mission last year. One half was caught by GO Ms. Tree and the other was scooped out of the ocean. Both were refurbished before encasing the stack of Starlinks.
Today's flight also marked a significant milestone for the Falcon 9. The rocket now has 84 flights under its belt — more than any other currently operational U.S. booster. The superlative formerly belonged to United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket, which has flown 83 times.
The Atlas V has two more launches on the books for this summer, one in May and one in June. The Falcon 9 has at least three on the books during that time frame, ensuring that SpaceX's workhorse will hang onto its new title for the foreseeable future.
Getting Starlink up and running involves more than launching satellites. The company also needs to gain approval for its user terminals — and that process is already well underway.
In March of this year, for example, SpaceX was granted approval for up to one million user terminals as part of a blanket license.
The hardware will be simple enough that anyone can install it, according to Musk, who has said the terminals look like a "UFO on a stick." The terminals will come with just two basic instructions — plug in and point at the sky — and are equipped with actuators that ensure they’re pointing where they should be at all times, Musk has said.
Following today’s successful liftoff, the veteran Falcon 9 booster, landed on a floating platform at sea, marking the company’s 51st successful recovery. The next flight on SpaceX's docket is another batch of Starlink satellites in May, followed by the company's first crewed mission, Demo-2.
On May 27, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will climb aboard their Crew Dragon spacecraft and launch to the International Space Station for an extended stay. This flight will mark the first time humans have launched to orbit from U.S. soil since the end of NASA's space shuttle program in 2011.
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