CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched a new batch of 60 Starlink internet satellites into orbit Thursday morning (March 4), and nailed its landing on a floating platform at sea to top off the long-awaited mission.
The successful liftoff came just a few hours after SpaceX's Starship prototype, SN10, successfully completed a high-altitude test flight at the company's facilities in Texas at 6:15 p.m. EST (2315 GMT). The stainless-steel launcher soared 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) in the sky, before touching back down. The flight went as planned, but the massive vehicle exploded shortly thereafter.
A few hours later and a few states over, a two-stage Falcon 9 booster, topped with the 60 broadband spacecraft, lifted off from Pad 39A here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 3:24 a.m. EST (0824 GMT). Approximately nine minutes later, the reusable rocket's first stage returned to Earth to attempt its eighth landing on SpaceX's drone ship "Of Course I Still Love You" about 400 miles (630 kilometers) downrange, out in the Atlantic Ocean.
"And we have confirmation of our successful stage one landing," Youmei Zhou, a Dragon propulsion engineer at SpaceX, said during a live webcast of the launch. "This will mark our 75th successful recovery of an orbital class rocket and the eighth recovery of this particular booster."
It was a cloudy night here in Florida, as the Falcon 9 lit up the sky during its climb to orbit. Low-hanging clouds prevented onlookers from seeing much of the launch, but made for interesting acoustics as the rumble from the engines thundered across the sky. Weather forecasters at the U.S. Space Force's 45th Weather Squadron predicted a 90% chance of favorable conditions for launch and although the visuals weren't spectacular, mother nature did not disappoint.
This latest mission marked the company's 20th Starlink mission and it's sixth mission overall for 2021 for SpaceX. Starring one of the company's more frequent fliers, a booster known as B1049, it previously ferried a Telstar communications satellite in September 2018, followed by an Iridium NEXT satellite in January 2019, and then five different Starlink missions between 2019 and 2020. It was the first in SpaceX's fleet to fly seven times and is now the second to launch and land eight times.
While SpaceX relies heavily on its fleet of flight-proven rockets and prefers to recover its Falcon 9 rocket stages for reuse, successfully delivering a flight's payload to orbit is always the company's main objective.
During its previous mission on Feb. 15, SpaceX broke a 25-booster recovery streak as that mission's first stage booster (B1059) failed to land on the drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean after launching a different batch of Starlink satellites into orbit from Florida. The mishap was attributed to "heat damage", company officials said at the 47 Space Summit held on Feb. 23.
When SpaceX upgraded its Falcon 9 rocket back in 2018, the vehicle received a series of enhancements, which included a more robust thermal protection system, titanium grid fins and a more durable interstage, that facilitated reuse. This meant that the rocket was designed to refly multiple times with few refurbishments in between.
The company said that it expected each booster to fly a minimum of 10 times with little to no refurbishments between flights and as many as 100 times before retirement.
We could see that 10th flight happen later this year, and the company will likely surpass the 10-flight threshold on one of its reusable rockets soon.
There are two boosters in the rotation that are close to that milestone. The one used in this flight (B1049), and B1051, which ferried an uncrewed Crew Dragon spacecraft to the space station as part of the Demo-1 test mission in 2018, a trio of Earth-observing satellites for Canada in 2019, a satellite for Sirius XM in 2020, and five different Starlink missions in 2020.
However, that proposed 10-flight limit may not be a magic number but instead a guideline that can change as the company improves the inspection and refurbishment process.
At the 47th Spaceport Summit, held virtually on Feb. 23, Hans Koeinngsman, a SpaceX senior advisor, said that the company has learned a lot about refurbishment.
"We're learning what to pay attention to," he said during the meeting. "There are some engine components that need regular inspections, so we're learning with every single landing."
This particular Starlink mission has required more pre-launch checkouts than previous ones, as it has been delayed or scrubbed more than 10 times.
The successful liftoff followed a months-long series of delays due to bad weather and the need for more preflight checkouts.
Originally slated to blast off on Jan. 27, the mission finally took to the skies more than a month later. The veteran rocket did its duty and deposited 60 of the flat-paneled broadband satellites into orbit about an hour after liftoff.
Thursday's predawn spectacle marked the 109th flight overall for SpaceX's flagship rocket (Falcon 9) and the 75th landing to date.
To recover its returning boosters, SpaceX uses two massive floating landing platforms — "Of Course I Still Love You" and "Just Read the Instructions" — in addition to its landing pads, which allow the company to launch and land more rockets. Typically the drone ships see most of the action as it takes more fuel reserves to land back in land than it does to land at sea.
Earlier this month, the Eastern Range (which oversees all launches on the East Coast) greenlit SpaceX to launch two missions from two different pads within a few hours of each other — a first for this era of commercial spaceflight. While there aren't any launches scheduled that close together any time soon, it is possible it could happen in the near future. Especially as the launch cadence continues to ramp up.
In 2020, SpaceX launched a record 26 missions, with 25 of them blasting off from Florida. This year, the company aims to launch as many as 40 rockets between its California and Florida launch facilities.
Expanding the megaconstellation
With tonight's launch success, SpaceX has launched more than 1,200 Starlink satellites into orbit, which includes some that are no longer operational. And there are many more launches coming as SpaceX's initial Starlink constellation will consist of 1,440 satellites. However, the company has sought approval for tens of thousands more.
The company launched its massive constellation, with one major goal: to connect the globe. To that end, SpaceX designed a fleet of flat paneled broadband satellites that will fly over the Earth, providing users across the globe with internet coverage.
SpaceX recently started taking preorders for its public rollout. Potential users could sign up for the service via the website, pay a deposit and then be notified when coverage is offered in their area.
The roll out is on a first-come, first-serve basis while the company is conducting an extensive international and domestic beta-testing phase.
SpaceX's very big year: A 2020 of astronaut launches, Starship tests & more
GO Ms. Tree and GO Ms. Chief, SpaceX's two net-equipped boats are sidelined for this mission. In their place, SpaceX has deployed one of its Dragon chasers: GO Searcher.
A prominent member of SpaceX's recovery fleet, GO Searcher is usually deployed to fetch Dragon capsules out of the water, but does occasionally serve as backup to the fairing catcher twins.
Both fairing pieces on this mission have flown before and SpaceX will be relying on GO Searcher to scoop them up after splashdown.
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