SpaceX to attempt record 9th flight of a Falcon 9 rocket with Starlink launch on Sunday

Update for 7:09 am ET: SpaceX has successfully launched and landing a Falcon 9 rocket for the 9th time. It carried 60 Starlink satellites into orbit. Read our wrap story here

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX is gearing up to launch a third batch of Starlink satellites in as many weeks on Sunday (March 14) and you can watch the action live online. 

The Hawthorne, California-based company is planning to fly one of its veteran Falcon 9 rockets for a record nine times with the mission, which comes just days after SpaceX's last launch. The two-stage launcher will blast off from the historic Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center here in Florida at 6:01 a.m. EDT (1101 GMT). 

You can watch the launch live here and on the homepage, courtesy of SpaceX, beginning about 15 minutes before liftoff. You can also watch the launch directly via SpaceX

Related: SpaceX's Starlink satellite megaconstellation launches in photos 

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 Sunday morning's flight will mark the eighth launch for SpaceX this year, keeping up a rapid launch cadence established last year when the company set a new launch record of 26 flights

Forecasters with the U.S. Space Force's 45th Weather Squadron reported that the launch weather looks promising for Sunday's early morning liftoff, with a 90% chance of favorable weather. The only slight concern is the potential for cumulus clouds. 

If needed, there is a backup launch window on Monday, with weather conditions looking just as promising. 

Beautiful weather is also predicted down range, which is good news for SpaceX’s main drone ship — "Of Course I Still Love You" — as it hopes to catch the booster as it returns to Earth. If successful, the landing will mark the 77th recovery for SpaceX since the company landed its first booster in 2015, and the ninth landing for this particular booster. 

 Flight no. 9 

 The booster, B1051, is one of two fleet leaders in SpaceX's stable of reusable rockets. It first flew in March of 2019, lofting an uncrewed Crew Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of a demonstration mission. 

Following that successful debut, B1051 trekked across the country to launch a trio of Earth-observing satellites for Canada from SpaceX's facilities at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The booster then flew a total of five times from Florida in 2020, carrying five different Starlink missions and a broadband satellite for Sirius XM.  

Sunday's mission marks the second flight for B1051 this year, and its second Starlink mission so far in 2021. After its last flight took off on Jan. 20, SpaceX engineers were able to turn around the booster and get it ready for its historic ninth flight in just 53 days — the second quickest turnaround time for this particular booster. (The fastest was between flights 7 and 8, which took off just 38 days apart.) 

 Expanding the constellation

 This particular flight, Starlink 21, is the 22nd set of internet-beaming satellites that SpaceX has delivered to space, including a set of initial prototypes in 2019. The company planned for its initial constellation to be 1,440 strong, and while SpaceX is well on its way to achieving that milestone, the company has already been granted approval for as many as 30,000 with the option for evenmore at a later time. 

The latest stack of 60 satellites will join the fleet already in orbit, bringing the total number launched over 1,300. (That number includes prototypes of the satellites that are no longer in service.) SpaceX is quickly filling its initial constellation, as it plans to launch a full commercial rollout later this year. 

To that end, the company recently started taking preorders via its website. If interested, potential customers can sign up via the company's Starlink website and secure service by putting down a deposit. The website does say that it could take several months for the service to become active, and that it's only allowing a limited number of users per area right now.  

In 2019, SpaceX kicked off an extensive beta-testing program, called "better than nothing beta", which kicked off with employees only. The initial results proved to be a success, so the company expanded the testing program to residents of the U.S.. Now, the service is offered in multiple countries, including the U.K., Germany, Canada, and most recently, New Zealand. 

When wild fires raged across the Pacific Northwest, SpaceX provided its Starlink to service to Washington State's emergency management division to help first responders aid in battling the wildfires. It also provided terminals to the Hoh tribe, a reservation located in Western Washington. Tribal leaders said that members were struggling to get connected and that the service has helped with education and provided access to telehealth. 

SpaceX has also connected the Pikangikum tribe in Canada, as well as residents in Wise County, Virginia. These users are exactly the type of people the service was designed for — those in rural or remote areas with little-to-no access to connectivity. 

 Fairing recovery 

The net-equipped SpaceX boat GO Ms. Tree catches a Falcon 9 payload fairing half on Aug. 18, 2020.

The net-equipped SpaceX boat GO Ms. Tree catches a Falcon 9 payload fairing half on Aug. 18, 2020. (Image credit: Elon Musk via Twitter)

 SpaceX's iconic rocket payload fairing catchers — GO Ms Tree and GO Ms Chief — are still sidelined in the port, undergoing maintenance. On the previous mission, GO Searcher and GO Navigator, two of SpaceX's Dragon recovery boats, were dispatched to the recovery zone to fetch the fairings. 

After pulling the two pieces of the fairing from the ocean, the dup transported them to Morehead City, NC, where they were transferred to another member of the SpaceX recovery fleet: GO Pursuit. The vessel will carry the pieces back to Port Canaveral so that GO Searcher and GO Navigator can retrieve the fairings after Sunday's launch. 

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Amy Thompson
Contributing Writer

Amy Thompson is a Florida-based space and science journalist, who joined as a contributing writer in 2015. She's passionate about all things space and is a huge science and science-fiction geek. Star Wars is her favorite fandom, with that sassy little droid, R2D2 being her favorite. She studied science at the University of Florida, earning a degree in microbiology. Her work has also been published in Newsweek, VICE, Smithsonian, and many more. Now she chases rockets, writing about launches, commercial space, space station science, and everything in between.