CAPE CANAVERAL, FL – On Wednesday, March 18, 2020, SpaceX successfully placed another set of sixty of their Starlink internet service satellites into their planned elliptical orbit via their Starlink V1.0-L5 mission. This launch follows a previous attempt that was performed on Sunday, but was aborted just fractions of a second prior to launch when an engine high power failure triggered the Falcon 9’s automatic abort sequence to kick in.
The mission, the sixth batch of Starlink satellites intended for orbit, lifted off today at 8:16am EDT from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex LC-39A. This flight utilized 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 v1.0 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 liftoff occurred on-time. The flight itself appeared to be operating normally until T+ 2:21 into the flight when a quick flash of light appeared in the engine exhaust plume due to the failure of at least one of SpaceX’s 9 Merlin 1D engines at the tail end of the first stage’s boost phase of the flight. The remaining 8 Merlin 1D engines were able to continue the flight and separation occurred normally about 18 seconds later at approximately T+ 2:39.
After separation, the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket was able to continue normally and the first stage booster appeared to be progressing normally towards SpaceX’s autonomous spaceport droneship, Of Course I Still Love You, which was positioned out at sea to catch the landing booster. The booster performed its planned entry burn to slow the vehicle down prior to entering the dense portions of the Earth’s atmosphere, but after the planned shutdown of this engine burn, the vehicle was seen making erratic movements with its onboard grid fins and SpaceX subsequently lost the video feed and telemetry from the first stage. Mission control audio during a typical webcast can usually be heard calling out the start of further events like the beginning of the booster’s landing burn and the deployment of the booster’s landing legs, however, these callouts were not heard over mission control audio feeds, pointing to the possibility that a permanent loss of telemetry occurred for the remainder of the booster’s final flight. SpaceX later confirmed via their webcast that the booster was indeed lost.
SpaceX is expected to analyze the engine failure from today’s flight to determine the root cause and Elon Musk was not prepared to completely rule out any relation to today’s engine failure with Sunday’s aborted launch attempt that was due to an engine power issue.
Although this booster failed in its recovery efforts, it still marks a significant milestone for SpaceX in that it is the first time that they have flown one of their Falcon 9 first stage boosters for a fifth time. 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, but that level of reuse has yet to be reached with today’s flight setting a new reusability record for the company. This booster in particular, B1048, first launched 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 also reused 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.
During today’s launch, SpaceX’s fleet of maritime vessels was positioned not only for recovery of their first stage booster, but also for the payload fairings too. Approximately 45 minutes after launch, SpaceX also attempted to catch both halves of their payload fairing in the gigantic nets on their support vessels, GO Ms. Tree and GO Ms. Chief. Unfortunately, SpaceX was unsuccessful in catch the payload fairings, but they did successfully recover them after they landed softly in the water. SpaceX has already proven that soft landing in the water still allows for reuse with some refurbishment which they have already performed.
Ultimately, the primary mission was successful as SpaceX was able to successfully deploy all 60 of their Starlink satellites into their planned orbit so this mission will be labeled a success and SpaceX is one-step closer to reaching operational capacity for their Starlink internet satellite constellation.
This launch of another set of Starlink satellites will put SpaceX at around 360 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 plays a key role in quickly launching their satellites and keeping the cost down, but delays or even unsuccessful booster recoveries like today’s are likely inevitable as SpaceX ventures into uncharted territory by launching boosters that have already flown numerous times. The next batch of Starlink satellites after this mission is expected to launch sometime in April 2020.