8:30am ET Wednesday update: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifted off as scheduled Wednesday morning, and the first stage successfully launched its 60 Starlink satellites into orbit. However, after making a historic fifth flight to Earth orbit, the rocket’s first stage was lost while attempting to land on a drone ship.
This video from shortly before the engines of the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage shut down seems to show that something is not quite right.
— Trevor Mahlmann (@TrevorMahlmann) March 18, 2020
In response to a snapping tweet by the author on the first ocean landing, SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk clarifies that, “There was also an early engine stop during takeoff, but this did not affect runway insertion. Shows the value of having 9 engines!” However, it is likely that the engine failure affected the landing attempt.
Musk promised there would be a “thorough investigation” ahead of the company’s next mission, likely the launch of the SAOCOM 1B satellite. It is currently scheduled for the end of March, but this is uncertain, both due to the aforementioned investigation and the Covid-19 crisis affecting launch operations at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
7:15 a.m. ET Wednesday update: The weather is good. After an engine problem on Sunday, the Falcon 9 rocket is good. And the 60 Starlink satellites in the booster charging line are good. Everything, therefore, remains poised for a second attempt to launch the sixth Starlink mission on Wednesday at 8:16 a.m. ET (12:16 UTC).
The webcast below should start about 15 minutes before launch.
9:30 a.m. ET Sunday update: The flight computers stopped the launch of a Falcon 9 rocket at T-0 on Sunday morning. There was apparently a power problem with at least one of the rocket’s nine motors that caused an automatic shutdown after ignition. The company will not make a second attempt on Sunday.
SpaceX has a backup facility for Monday morning, likely around 9 a.m. ET (13:00 UTC), but it’s not clear if they’ll be using it. This will be determined after engineers analyze the cause of Sunday morning’s abort and determine the best path to a safe launch. The weather is also favorable for Monday.
Original post: As it launches its next batch of Starlink satellites — the company’s sixth batch of 60 operational spacecraft — SpaceX plans to continue pushing the boundaries of reuse. With this mission, the company plans to fly the same Falcon 9 first stage for the fifth time.
After completing a static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage on Friday, the company is now targeting the mission from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center on Sunday at 9:22 a.m. ET (13:22 UTC). . The weather is expected to be favorable, with only a 10 percent chance of bad conditions from too many cumulus clouds.
SpaceX also announced on Friday that it will reuse the fairing of the rocket, which previously flew on a Starlink mission in May 2019. This means that the only part of the Falcon 9 rocket that doesn’t get recycled is the second stage, which is powered by a single Merlin vacuum engine and pushes the satellites from the edge of space to their deployment in orbit over 200 km. above the ground.
This particular first stage flew its first mission in July 2018, when it launched a series of Iridium satellites into orbit. It launched its next mission, an Earth observation satellite for Argentina, less than three months later. In general, this first phase lasted an average of four months between flights.
Since the introduction of the latest iteration of its Falcon 9 rocket, called Block 5, SpaceX has worked to turn the first stages more quickly. The company believes it can recycle first-stage rockets — from landing to reuse — in about 30 days. (So far, it has managed to fly a first leg again about two months after landing). After each flight, a maintenance team still opens the rocket to inspect the connections for leaks, ensure the reliability of the avionics, inspect welds and more. The company’s engineers and technicians are still learning, so as they collect more data, they should be able to better understand what needs to be inspected and what doesn’t.
The company currently plans to have each Falcon 9 rocket fly the first stage 10 times before retiring. Some early re-flown first stages — variants of the Falcon 9 developed before the Block 5 iteration that were rated for only two flights — now end up in museums.
For Sunday’s launch attempt, SpaceX will attempt to recover this first stage on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. It will also attempt to retrieve the fairing halves. This will be SpaceX’s sixth launch of the year.
List image by SpaceX