SpaceX launched another batch of Starlink satellites early Sunday morning, approaching a significant milestone for rocket reuse. The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket that carried this payload to Earth orbit, Booster No. 1051, made its ninth flight. It landed successfully on the Of course I still love you drone ship.
Since this is the first Falcon 9 rocket to launch nine missions, there’s a chance of a first stage making a tenth flight in the near future, probably within a month or two. Achieving ten flights would be one of the key goals SpaceX set with the Falcon 9 rocket, after the vehicle was optimized for reuse about three years ago.
The company debuted its “Block 5” version of the Falcon 9 rocket in May 2018, and since then, this vehicle has flown 55 missions, all of which have successfully launched their payloads into orbit. More importantly, the changes that SpaceX engineers have made to this new rocket to ensure robustness for reuse, such as strengthening the “Octaweb” engine bay, have been largely validated.
“For those familiar with rockets, this is a ridiculously difficult thing to do,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk said during a 2018 conference call with reporters to discuss the Block 5 upgrades. “It’s taken us since, man, since 2002. Sixteen years of extreme effort and many, many iterations and thousands of small but significant developmental changes to get to where we think it’s even possible.” He paused, then added, “Crazy loud.”
At the time, Musk set two primary goals for the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage. He wanted to fly each vehicle 10 times before needing major maintenance. And he hoped within 24 hours to reach the point where a Falcon 9 rocket could be flipped over and flown again.
SpaceX appears to have made good progress toward the first goal. While the company hasn’t disclosed how much maintenance it does on Falcon 9’s first stages between launches, or how often a Merlin engine is replaced, the cores have proven to be reliable and rugged. Numerous first stages of Falcon 9 have now been flown more than five times.
The business continues to be a way of a 24-hour turnaround. While it has cut initial inspection and refurbishment time between flights from about six months to the current record 27 days, it seems likely that SpaceX won’t reach its 24-hour turnaround target with the Falcon 9. Most likely, the company will follow through on what it learned. from flying and reusing the Falcon 9, and transferring this pursuit of ultra-fast reuse to the spaceship vehicle SpaceX is currently developing in South Texas.
This ability to quickly reuse the Falcon 9 rocket has allowed SpaceX to achieve a high cadence of launches in recent months with a fleet of fewer than 10 active boosters. So far, in 2021, the company will launch an average of every nine days, a remarkable cadence for a large orbital rocket. There may be another Falcon 9 launch this weekend.
SpaceX’s need to put thousands of Starlink internet satellites into orbit — Sunday’s flight was the 21st launch of operational Starlink satellites — is driving the company’s manifesto. Six of the company’s eight launches so far in 2021 had 60 Starlink satellites each.
Astronomers have expressed concern about the effect of these satellites on the night sky, and satellite experts are concerned about collisions between so many vehicles in low Earth orbit. There is no doubt, however, that the engineering required to get so many satellites into orbit so quickly is impressive. Musk noticed on Twitter this weekend that SpaceX will have put twice as much payload into orbit in 2020 than the rest of the world combined and will potentially circle the globe three or even four times by 2021.
List image by SpaceX