CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA – As the orange flames from the Falcon 9 booster pierced the late morning Florida sky over Cape Canaveral, Florida, SpaceX sent the next batch of Starlink satellites into orbit. For this Falcon 9 Block V booster core (Serial Number B1056), this is the fourth launch. The 60 Starlink satellites on this launch will be placed in three separate orbital planes over the next 20 days.
After launch, B1056 made it to the vicinity of the droneship, Of Course I Still Love You, but, surprisingly, did not stick the landing. The video below shows a cloud of mist where the booster touched down just out of frame to the right. The reason behind the missed landing will probably be revealed by SpaceX or Elon Musk in the next few days. This would have been the 50th successful booster landing. Both Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief were standing by for fairing recovery attempts, which occurred at about T+45:00. At the time of writing this (T+1 hour), we haven’t heard from SpaceX whether the catches were successful.
As stated previously, this is the fourth launch of B1056. The first was CRS-17 on May 4, 2019, followed by CRS-18 on July 25. The third launch was on Dec. 16 for the JCSAT-18/Kacific-1 mission. With this launch, SpaceX achieved the fastest turnaround time for a Falcon 9 at 63 days between launches. Their goal by the end of the year is to beat the fastest turnaround time for an orbital class vehicle of 54 days, set by Atlantis in 1985. This launch was originally scheduled for Feb. 15. It was rescheduled for Feb.16 due to a second stage valve issue, and once again rescheduled to today for the same fix.
With this launch, the Starlink constellation has reached 300 satellites, with many more to come before year’s end. SpaceX had previously hoped to achieve a launch cadence of two Starlink launches per month in 2020, but weather delays have hindered their efforts and this is the only Starlink launch for February.
Starlink, once complete, will provide worldwide broadband internet connectivity through the use of 12,000 satellites in five orbital “shells.” SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has already used the Starlink system to Tweet:
Starlink does have its detractors. Some in the spaceflight community wonder about the effects of creating quite a bit of debris, or “space junk” with each launch. Others in the astronomy community are crying out about the high possibility of data loss with so many satellites crossing through their observations. Both concerns are valid. SpaceX has acted on the astronomy angle by using a darkening paint to potentially lessen the effects on ground observations. However, Musk has stated that the future of astronomy is from space bound observations, not from the ground.
As for the health of the constellation, from their first flight of Starlink satellites (Version 0.9), SpaceX recorded a loss of three, with an additional two preparing to propulsively deorbit as a test of their capabilities. The three “dead” satellites will passively deorbit over time.
Starlink itself will potentially be spinning off into its own company in the coming months. There have been reports of a potential IPO (initial public offering of stock). Starlink service, once active will cost less than Earthbound internet, according to Musk. Starlink does hold promise in potentially funding larger projects in SpaceX’s future, such as Starship and a potential colonization of Mars, a repeatedly stated goal of Elon Musk.