CAPE CANAVERAL, FL – The countdown procedures for the next batch of SpaceX Starlink satellites being sent into orbit by the company’s Falcon 9 rocket seemed to be progressing normally for an on time liftoff today, however, the rocket’s automated on board computer systems commanded an abort just fractions of a second prior to liftoff of the Starlink V1.0-L5 mission.
The mission, the sixth batch of Starlink satellites intended for orbit, was scheduled to launch on March 15, 2020 at 9:22am EDT from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex LC-39A. This flight would use a reused B1048 Falcon 9 booster that has already flown and landed four previous times as well as reused payload fairings from a previous Starlink launch. Inside of that payload fairing is 60 of SpaceX’s fully operational Starlink satellites which are intended to provide worldwide internet access from Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
Weather for today’s launch attempt was 90% GO and appeared to be quite beautiful, but as the Falcon 9’s on board computers command the Merlin 1D engines to startup, an “Engine High Power” issue caused the on board computer system to command an automatic an immediate abort of the launch at T+ 0:00 just fractions of a second prior to the scheduled liftoff. Mission controllers spent the next few minutes “safing” the Falcon 9 rocket and recycling their launch parameters to prepare for the next launch attempt. A backup window is already available and planed for Monday, March 16, 2020, however, this is typically used for weather aborts. SpaceX is expected to review the conditions and causes of today’s abort and announce an actual rescheduled launch date in the near future. It’s likely that this abort will cause at least a few days of delay while SpaceX sorts out any issues with the Falcon 9 rocket and they may even consider a new static fire test to prepare for the next attempt. SpaceX previously performed a static fire test yesterday in preparation for today’s launch attempt. This static fire test operated normally and no known issues were detected in this pre-launch test.
As SpaceX begins increasing the frequency at which they are launching their rockets, particularly due to the numerous Starlink launches they are schedule to operate this year, launch pad availability is one area where bottlenecks could easily occur. A significant benefit from today’s launch attempt is that SpaceX was using launch pad LC-39A, one of two launch facilities that SpaceX operates at Cape Canaveral, Florida. LC-39A is the only launch pad currently capable of launching their Falcon Heavy rocket and also launch their Crew Dragon capsule, but SpaceX has been utilizing LC-39A for commercial missions as well, although it has not done so since November 2018. Operating two facilities allows SpaceX to better handle aborts and delays of this nature without affecting their next mission, SAOCOM-1B, which is scheduled to launch from launch pad SLC-40, SpaceX’s other launch facility just over three miles south of LC-39A.
This mission also marks a significant milestone for SpaceX in that it is the first time that they are launching and reusing one of their Falcon 9 first stage boosters for a fifth flight. SpaceX’s 2018 upgrade to their “Block 5” variant of the Falcon 9 booster made reusability possible for up to 10 flights of each first stage booster, per their designs. This booster in particular, B1048, first launch back in July 2018 in support of their Iridium NEXT-7 mission from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the west coast. Three months later, it launched SAOCOM-1A into orbit from Vandenberg again and performed the first Return to Launch Site (RTLS) landing on the west coast at landing pad LZ-4. The booster then launched again from the east coast carrying Nusantara Satu and the Beresheet lunar lander early in 2019 and then finally launched the first V1.0 batch of Starlink satellites in November 2019.
In addition to reusing the first stage booster for this flight, SpaceX is also reusing their payload fairing, which is the protective nosecone that covers the Starlink satellites and protects them from aerodynamic forces during launch. The payload fairing previously launched on board SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy mission for Arabsat-6A back in April 2019.
This launch of another set of Starlink satellites will put SpaceX at around 300 operational satellites in orbit for their planned Low Earth Orbit satellite constellation. These satellites are expected to deliver high speed internet worldwide with latency (internet speeds) that are in line with what traditional broadband internet provides currently provide. Satellite internet has been around for a number of years, but has been serviced by satellites in much higher altitude Geostationary Orbits around 36,000 km above the surface of the Earth.. This much higher altitude results in latency speeds (communication speed to the satellite) of around 600 milliseconds. SpaceX’s starlink satellites are expected to operate at about 550 km in altitude, allowing SpaceX to achieve latency speeds of under 20 milliseconds with SpaceX hoping to provide bandwidth of up to 1 Gigabit per second to end users.
SpaceX is planning to launch another 15 to 20 Starlink missions throughout 2020, about 2 flights per month, each with 60 satellites on board which will allow them to complete Phase 1 of their satellite constellation by putting 1,600 satellites into service. This level would allow them to reach minimal operational capacity with service capabilities to Canada and the northern United States potentially by the end of the year, with worldwide coverage possible as early as 2021.
Of course all of this depends on how quickly they can put their satellites into orbit. Reusability of their Falcon 9 first stage boosters and their payload fairings will play a key role in quickly launching their satellites, but delays like today’s are likely inevitable as SpaceX ventures into uncharted territory by launching boosters that have already flown numerous times. For now, we’ll await word from SpaceX on when their next launch attempt will be for this mission. The next batch of Starlink satellites after this mission is expected to launch sometime in April 2020.