SpaceX was shooting for an ambitious, milestone-packed launch Monday morning that would have further flexed its reusability muscle as the company works to make rocket launches as routine as air travel.
And it did succeed on some fronts: The launch was the company’s 80th successful takeoff, using a rocket booster that flew only 63 days ago. That’s the quickest turnaround time yet for a reused booster.
The Falcon 9 booster that launched Monday at 10:05 a.m. from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s launch complex 40 previously flew on Dec. 16. This was the booster’s fourth mission. The previous record to turnaround a booster was 72 days.
But SpaceX was also hoping to land the booster back on its droneship, “Of Course I Still Love You,” stationed in the Atlantic Ocean shortly after launch — what would have marked its 50th successful landing. The booster missed the mark, apparently crashing in the ocean instead.
The reason, cautioned SpaceX lead manufacturing engineer Jessica Anderson, was the complexity of the mission. SpaceX launched a set of 60 of the company’s own satellites, called Starlink, Monday morning. But, unlike prior missions of the satellites, these satellites were directly injected into an elliptical, or oval, orbit, instead of a circular orbit.
“The stack for 60 Starlinks combined is one of the heaviest payloads we fly so putting them directly into this orbit requires more vehicle performance and makes recovery more challenging,” Anderson said. Each Starlink weighs about 570 pounds, for a combined weight upwards of 34,000 pounds.
Reusing major components is a central part of SpaceX’s business model. The company is working to extend the working life of its boosters, which it attempts to land back to Earth about eight minutes after most launches, and its fairings, the clam-like portion at the top of the rocket that carries the payload.
So far, SpaceX as been able to catch one half of its fairings after launch and has gotten closer to recovering both halves on its Ms. Chief and Ms. Tree recovery vessels.
Recovery is key to bringing down the high price tag typically associated with rocket launches. The company says a standard Falcon 9 flight costs $62 million, compared to legacy providers that charge closer to $100 million, according to past estimates.
“Long term, we are hoping to drive that turnaround time down even further with rocket launches looking more similar to commercial air travel where the planes get basic check outs, they get refueled and then they head right back out,” said Lauren Lyons, a SpaceX Starlink engineer.
Starlink is the other part of SpaceX’s evolving business model. In May of last year, SpaceX officially entered the telecommunications industry by launching its own line of satellites called Starlink to offer high-speed broadband internet connectivity to the entire globe.
Monday’s launch was the fifth overall for Starlink. It has been delayed twice, from Saturday due to bad weather and Sunday due a component in the rocket’s second stage that the SpaceX team chose to further evaluate.
SpaceX has been sending Starlink satellites to low-Earth orbit in batches of 60 satellites per launch at a rapid clip to try to have as many as 1,500 spacecraft in orbit by the end of the year. There’s already been two Starlink launches this year.
But, previously, the satellites went into a circular orbit to about 180 miles above Earth. From now on, they’ll go straight into an elliptical orbit, SpaceX said. The satellites are then raised to their operational altitude, about 340 miles from the globe.
The satellites orbit significantly closer than traditional geostationary satellites that orbit more than 20,000 miles from the planet. That proximity means high speeds for internet connectivity but it also means thousands need to be in space to be able to offer coverage to the entire planet.
If SpaceX meets its goal of more than 1,500 Starlinks in space by the end of 2020 — that’s 20 more launches, — the company says it will be able to offer coverage to North America and Canada.
And while the business motivation is clear, the astronomical community is less than thrilled at the prospect of hundreds of satellites orbiting the Earth at close range, creating steaks of light across the night sky that impede their ability to collect accurate data. SpaceX has been working with the American Astronomical Society since last year to try to find a solution.
The company and the astronomical society are awaiting the result of a test launched in January that included a coated satellite, to see if a darkened spacecraft could both function well and dim the affect of Starlinks in the night sky. The results of the test won’t be available until March.
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