SpaceX successfully implements 60 Starlink satellites, but loses booster on descent – Spaceflight now

A Falcon 9 rocket launches from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 22:59 EST Monday (0359 GMT Tuesday) with 60 more Starlink Internet satellites. Credit: Stephen Clark / Space Flight Now

SpaceX successfully launched 60 more Starlink Internet satellites Monday night from Cape Canaveral, but lost the reusable first stage booster of the Falcon 9 rocket during a landing attempt on a drone ship parked in the Atlantic Ocean.

The 229 meter high (70 meter) Falcon 9 rocket exploded at. 22:59:37 EST Monday (0359: 37 GMT Tuesday) from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, one day after the weather held the mission on Earth.

Heading northeast with 1.7 million pounds of stack from nine Merlin main engines, the petroleum-powered rocket fired into a clear late night sky over Florida’s Space Coast at SpaceX’s fifth Falcon 9 launch of the year.

The first stage completed its work two and a half minutes after the liftoff and fell away moments before the Falcon 9 ignited its single-engine second place to deliver the 60 flat-screen Starlink satellites into orbit.

The booster expanded lattice fins and curved downward on a ballistic trajectory, then oriented toward the leap back into the atmosphere. The first stage was programmed to fire three of its nine Merlin engines for an input combustion and then re-ignite a single engine for a final braking maneuver just before attempting a propulsion landing on SpaceX’s drone ship “Of course I still love you” located approx. 400 miles (630 kilometers) downhill from Cape Canaveral.

But something seemed to go wrong with the entrance burning. A live video feed from a built-in camera showed the rocket following a burning cloud after the end of the entrance firing, moments before telemetry data from the vehicle was cut off. A camera from SpaceX’s drone ship showed an orange glow in the sky as the rocket presumably crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

The booster flew on Monday’s mission – designated B1059 – was on its sixth voyage into space. SpaceX says the latest version of the Falcon 9 booster can make 10 flights with only inspections and minor renovations between missions and can fly on further launches after a major overhaul.

SpaceX’s most used Falcon 9 booster has flown eight times.

The company’s recovery and reuse of the first phases of Falcon 9 is unparalleled in the launch industry. No other commercial launch company has landed and recycled boosters on orbital-class missions. By going to Monday night’s launch, SpaceX had restored Falcon booster cores 74 times since 2015, including 24 equally successful landings since the last time the company lost a first leg in March 2020.

The loss of a rocket phase will almost certainly create an investigation at SpaceX and could affect the company’s short-term launch plan. SpaceX has six Falcon 9 boosters left in its inventory. Three of them are earmarked for future missions for NASA and the US Space Force: SpaceX’s next crew launch to the International Space Station in April, starting with a GPS satellite and NASA asteroid probe in July.

SpaceX is building several Falcon cores, including boosters for the next triple-body Falcon Heavy launch later this year, but none are reaching the launch pad.

While the once experimental rocket landings are a secondary goal of each mission, the successful recovery of Falcon boosters is more critical than ever to SpaceX’s ability to maintain its high-pace launch cadence, especially for flights added to the company’s Starlink Internet network. Launched Monday night, SpaceX’s third in less than a month was dedicated to the multi-billion dollar Starlink program, and officials planned two more Starlink missions by the end of February.

Before the launch of Monday night, SpaceX planned the next Falcon 9 flight – using a second boost in the first phase – from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center as soon as noon. 12.55 EST (0555 GMT) Wednesday. It was not immediately clear how the booster’s failed landing could affect these plans.

SpaceX officials provided no details as to why the booster did not land on the drone ship Monday night. The second phase achieved the primary goal of the flight and used two combustions of its Merlin Vacuum or MVAC engine to inject the 60 Starlink satellites into an orbit of less than 300 kilometers above the Earth.

“We were not able to land the first stage, which is a bummer, but our second stage had two successful combustions of the MVAC engine,” said Jessie Anderson, a SpaceX engineer who hosted the company’s launch webcast Monday night.

The top phase spanned up to the release of the 60 Starlink satellites just over an hour after liftoff. The quarter-ton satellites, built by SpaceX in Redmond, Washington, flew free of the second phase of the Falcon 9 before embarking on automated activation procedures to unfold their solarrays and launch standard post-launch check-out.

The satellites will turn on their krypton-ion thrusters to climb into their operational orbit 550 kilometers in altitude with an inclination of 53 degrees to the equator.

SpaceX has more than 1,000 satellites in its Starlink constellation, well on its way to completing the implementation of its original tranche of 1,584 Starlink stations later this year. SpaceX does not stop there with plans to launch additional “shells” of Starlink satellites into polar orbit to enable global coverage with a first-generation fleet of a total of about 4,400 spacecraft.

The Federal Communications Commission has approved SpaceX to eventually operate up to 12,000 Starlink satellites.

Credit: Stephen Clark / Space Flight Now

SpaceX began accepting pre-orders from prospective Starlink users last week and charging $ 99 for a potential customer to queue for the broadband service. Once confirmed, customers pay $ 499 for a Starlink antenna and a modem plus $ 50 in shipping and handling, SpaceX says. A subscription runs $ 99 per. Month.

SpaceX says the service should be available throughout the United States later this year.

Beta testing of the Starlink network has been going on for several months in the northern United States, Canada. SpaceX said more than 10,000 users in the United States abroad are already on the Starlink service, according to a February 3 regular filing with the FCC.

“Starlink continues to improve as SpaceX implements additional infrastructure and capacity, averaging two Starlink launches per month, to add significant circuit capacity along with activating additional gateways to improve performance and expand service coverage across the country,” wrote SpaceX in archiving.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, tweeted on February 9 that SpaceX’s Starlink subsidiary will go public when it has a predictable cash flow.

“Once we can predict cash flows reasonably well, Starlink will list,” Musk tweeted.

Until then, SpaceX will use cash at high speed to maintain the high-speed implementation of the Starlink network, from satellite launches at an average pace every few weeks to the production of user ground terminals. SpaceX has said the entire project could cost more than $ 10 billion, but Musk has said revenue opportunities are even higher, giving SpaceX resources to advance its daring plans to send humans to Mars.

“SpaceX must cross a deep chasm with negative cash flow over the next year or so to make Starlink financially viable,” Musk tweeted. “Every new satellite constellation in history has gone bankrupt. We hope to be the first not to do so. ”

The FCC allocated nearly $ 885 million in public subsidies to SpaceX in December through a program aimed at expanding broadband access for rural Americans.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @ StephenClark1.

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