11 am ET update: Right on schedule, a Falcon 9 rocket launched from Florida at 10:31 a.m. local time on Tuesday morning. When this first leg made its sixth flight, a record for liquid fuel first stages, it all seemed nominal for the mission. Minutes later, the Falcon 9’s first stage landed on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
The top stage of the rocket has already deployed three small satellites for Planet and is now on its way to drop 58 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit.
Original post: Let’s think for a moment about B1049, a Falcon 9 booster for the first stage that made its debut in September 2018 with the launch of the Telstar 18V commercial mission. Then, in January 2019, the core launched another commercial mission, sending a passel of Iridium satellites into space.
Both were successes. Since then, the first phase has launched three different Starlink missions into low Earth orbit as SpaceX tries to build out a constellation of satellites to deliver broadband internet from space.
The Starlink platform could eventually become a very profitable venture for SpaceX, although much work still needs to be done regarding ground stations to receive signals, regulatory compliance and more. But what’s indisputable is that launching Starlink missions has allowed SpaceX to push the boundaries of reuse with its Falcon 9 rocket.
The company has not flown commercial satellites as primary payloads on rockets after their third flight – endangering its own Starlink satellites on the fourth and fifth flights of several Falcon 9 first stages. And it’s worth noting that every Starlink mission has been a success in putting the satellites into orbit.
Some lessons have been learned along the way. In March, during its fifth flight, a Falcon 9 first stage suffered an early engine failure en route to Earth orbit, preventing a successful landing of the first stage. This was later traced to a problematic chemical used while cleaning the engines between flights.
These are the kinds of things engineers learn about the Falcon 9 rocket as they go deeper into uncharted territory. Will other aging issues crop up as boosters fly more missions? We may find out today, as B1049 becomes the first stage attempting to put six flights into orbit. This mission will carry 58 Starlink satellites and three SkySats for Planet.
A launch webcast should begin approximately 15 minutes prior to the 10:31 a.m. ET (14:31 UTC) launch time.
List image by Trevor Mahlmann