CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched 60 Starlink Internet satellites into orbit early Sunday (May 9) and then landed at sea to complete a record 10th flight to the company’s reusable booster.
The veteran Falcon 9 rocket exploded before dawn from Space Launch Complex 40 here at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at. 02.42 EDT (0642 GMT), marking the company’s 14th launch of the year. It was also one for the record books, as the flight was precisely this booster’s 10th launch and landing attempt. The rocket’s once pristine exterior was almost black, charred by its many trips to orbit and back.
“First time a Falcon rocket launcher reaches two digits in flights,”
Related: SpaceX’s Starlink satellite mega constellation launches on photos
The successful liftoff marked the second time SpaceX launched one of its 229-foot (70-meter) workhorse Falcon 9 rockets within the same week, each with a full stack of 60 flat-paneled Starlink broadband satellites.
“SpaceX’s first reuse of a rocket class rocket was on the SES-10 mission far back in March 2017, “said Spacex supply chain supervisor Michael Andrews in a live webcast.” We have certainly come a long way since then. “
About nine minutes after the liftoff, the first stage of the rocket returned to Earth and touched SpaceX’s drone ship “Just Read the Instructions” for a record 10 successful landings.
The spectators were treated with quite the spectacle as the rocket lit up before the sky as it climbed into orbit. Clear skies over Florida’s Space Coast provide the best viewing conditions.
In photos: SpaceX launches, lands 1st recycled Falcon 9 rocket
In 2020, SpaceX launched a record 26 rockets, and the company shows no signs of slowing down. So far this year, Hawthorne, California-based rocket builder, has launched 14 missions. Each of these launches has been on recycled rockets, and most have carried SpaceX’s own Starlink satellites.
Last month, SpaceX celebrated the launch of its third astronaut mission in less than a year when the private space company delivered a crew of four astronauts to the International Space Station. This mission, called Crew-2, was SpaceX’s first occupied mission to fly a recycled rocket.
Of its 14 missions this year, 11 have orbited Starlink satellites. SpaceX has already completed its original Internet constellation of 1,440 broadband satellites. However, the company has approval to start thousands more and relies on its fleet of flight-tested boosters to help it do so.
SpaceX’s first ‘Block 5’ Falcon 9 rocket: The launch images
Reusable rocket milestone
The booster used in Sunday’s launch, called the B1051, is one of SpaceX’s fleet leaders. The veteran pilot now has 10 launches and landings under his belt as the company plans to push its Falcon 9 rockets to the extreme. It’s the first booster in SpaceX’s fleet to reach this milestone. (Another booster, B1049, was just launched on its ninth mission earlier this week.)
This Falcon 9 debuted in 2019, launch of an unmanned Crew Dragon capsule on the Demo-1 mission as part of a test flight to NASA’s Commercial Crew program. The booster also launched one trio of Earth observation satellites to Canada, a broadband satellite for Sirius-XM and seven different Starlink missions.
SpaceX has used its previously flown boosters with the most miles to transport its own satellites into space. That way, the company can push its fleet of Falcons to the extreme, while learning as much about wear and tear as each vehicle gets during launch.
This is the 118th overall flight for the Falcon 9, and the 64th flight of a refurbished booster. In fact, every spaceX launch so far in 2021 has been on a flight-tested rocket.
In 2018, the SpaceX rocket we see today debuted a version of the Falcon 9 known as Block 5. This more capable Falcon 9 has ushered in an era of rapid reusability for the company, enabling SpaceX to launch more rockets than ever before.
Three years ago, SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk told reporters that the company expected each Falcon 9 to fly 10 times with few renovations between flights and as many as 100 times before retirement.
The B1051 is the first to reach the historic milestone of 10 aircraft and is expected to fly again after its successful landing at sea. According to Musk, there does not appear to be a hard limit on the number of times a booster can be reused, so the company will continue to push each Falcon to its limit.
Having a fleet of aircraft-tested rockets available allows SpaceX to keep up with its fast launch cadence. However, SpaceX chooses to fly its own payload on boosters with a high number of aircraft, saving its newer boosters for paying customers.
Both NASA and the US Space Force recently gave the company approval to fly their payload on recycled rockets, and we saw the first of these missions explode on April 23 with the launch of Crew-2. (SpaceX has flown other NASA missions on recycled boosters, but the April flight marked the first time a human mission has done so.)
To facilitate recycling, SpaceX equipped its Falcon 9 with some upgrades that previous versions did not have, including a more robust thermal protection system, a more durable space (the part that connects the first stage of the rocket to the upper stage), titanium grids and more powerful engines. These key improvements, along with two drone ships on the same coast, have enabled SpaceX to launch and land more rockets.
Starlink constellation is growing
SpaceX created its massive Internet constellation with one main goal: to provide Internet coverage to the world, especially those in remote and rural areas. To this end, the company’s engineers designed a fleet of flat-screen broadband satellites to fly over Earth and beamed Internet coverage to users who could access the service via a compact user terminal.
With Sunday’s launch success, SpaceX has launched more than 1,600 Starlink satellites into orbit, including some that are no longer operational. This goes beyond the company’s original quota, which means we should see an official commercial implementation of the Starlink Internet service sometime this year.
The company has already proved useful to those in remote areas. SpaceX has connected school districts in Virginia and North Carolina that would otherwise struggle with online learning, as well as the Hoh tribe in Washington State and the Pikangikum Nation in western Ontario.
Starlink review (practical): How good is Elon Musk’s satellite internet service?
Currently, Starlink is still in its beta testing phase, with users around the world putting the service through. The company has also opened its website to start pre-ordering, although service does not start immediately. Potential users can go to the company website and book the service with a $ 99 security deposit right now.
According to company officials, more than 500,000 users have so far signed up for the budding service.
Recovery of rocket feeding
Both cape halves of Tuesday’s mission will be recovered by the newest member of SpaceX’s recovery fleet, Shelia Bordelon. The company officially bids farewell to its dynamic duo – GO Ms. Tree and GO Ms. Chief – last month. The two fairing captives helped SpaceX pioneer its recovery efforts.
The rocket’s nose cone (also called a mantle) is a piece of clam-like hardware that protects the payload as the rocket runs through the atmosphere. When it reaches a certain height, the pieces go down and fall back to the ground.
Historically, hardware was discarded at sea and never used again. But thanks to on-board parachutes and navigation software, SpaceX began reclaiming the frames either by trapping them in a net-equipped boat or scooping them out of the water.
Using its built-in crane, the brightly painted Shelia Bordelon will pick up capes from the water and return them to port. From there, they will be renovated and prepared for their next mission.
Follow Amy Thompson on Twitter @astrogingersnap. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.