SpaceX's latest batch of 60 Starlink internet satellites made it to orbit just fine this morning (March 18), but the company's Falcon 9 rocket ride suffered a slight hiccup along the way.
One of the nine Merlin engines that powers the reusable Falcon 9's first stage shut down too early during today's launch, said SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk. He vowed to get to the bottom of the issue, even though it didn't prevent the rocket from doing its job.
Today's success "shows value of having 9 engines! Thorough investigation needed before next mission," Musk said via Twitter today.
Today's liftoff was the record-breaking fifth for this Falcon 9 first stage. But the booster failed to stick its fifth landing, plunging into the Atlantic Ocean instead of settling onto the deck of a SpaceX drone ship as planned.
An anomalous engine reading caused the Falcon 9 to automatically abort a launch attempt on Monday (March 16), pushing the mission back to today. It's possible, though far from confirmed, that today's engine issue is related to the one that caused the abort, Musk said.
The billionaire entrepreneur didn't address whether the engine shutdown is related to the unsuccessful landing attempt, but he did stress that some issues are to be expected when flying a rocket for an unprecedented fifth time.
"This vehicle has seen a lot of wear, so today isn't a big surprise. Life leader rockets are used only for internal missions. Won't risk non-SpaceX satellites," Musk said in another tweet.
Last launch aborted due to slightly high power. Possibly, but not obviously, related to today. This vehicle has seen a lot of wear, so today isn’t a big surprise. Life leader rockets are used only for internal missions. Won’t risk non-SpaceX satellites.March 18, 2020
As he noted above, because of the Falcon 9's robust design, the rocket can power through an engine failure. And this has happened before: In October 2012, a Falcon 9 got SpaceX's robotic Dragon cargo capsule safely on its way toward the International Space Station despite an early engine conk-out.
SpaceX now has 360 Starlink spacecraft in low Earth orbit. Starlink is the biggest satellite constellation in history, and it's going to get much bigger. SpaceX already has permission to loft 12,000 Starlink craft, and the company has applied for approval to launch 30,000 more.
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Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.
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