With latest Starlink launch, SpaceX to set record for rapid reuse

Enlarge / Falcon 9, booster 1051, breaking through the sound barrier on December 13, 2020. It’s back for an eighth launch a little more than a month later.

SpaceX is continuing to make strides as it pushes the boundaries of reusing the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket.

On Wednesday morning, the company plans to launch its next batch of 60 Starlink satellites, reusing booster No. 1051. This will in fact be the eighth flight of this Falcon 9 rocket first stage—setting a new record for the number of uses of any single rocket core. SpaceX anticipates reaching the milestone of 10 uses for at least one Falcon 9 first stage later this year.

The upcoming launch attempt is also notable because it would represent a rapid turnaround for this first stage. The rocket last flew on December 13, launching the Sirius XM-7 mission into geostationary transfer orbit. This 38-day period would significantly beat the previous turnaround margin for a Falcon 9 first stage, which is 51 days. This suggests the company’s engineers and technicians are continuing to learn about best practices for recovering and refurbishing rockets.

The Starlink mission is scheduled to launch at 8:02am EST (13:02 UTC) on Wednesday from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. Its launch was originally delayed for 24 hours from Monday due to unfavorable weather conditions in the recovery area offshore, where Just Read the Instructions will await the first-stage return. The company then delayed the mission an additional day, saying more time was needed for “pre-launch inspections.” It is not clear whether this referred to the rocket or the payload.

This will be the 16th launch of “operational” Starlink satellites, in addition to an earlier launch of test satellites. Already the largest satellite operator in the world, this mission will bring the total number of Starlink satellites launched by SpaceX to more than 1,000. Some of those satellites are no longer operational, and they are in the process of being de-orbited or have already done so.

In beginning to build out this constellation, SpaceX has begun to offer a public beta to select areas of North America and is expected to offer more widespread coverage later this year. First impressions have generally been positive.

At the same time, SpaceX has also been working to address the concerns of scientists who are concerned that large constellations of satellites delivering Internet from space will mar the night sky and harm astronomical observations. Last year the company began adding “visors” to reduce the reflectivity of its satellites. However, a recent analysis of these “DarkSats” suggests that more effort may be needed.

Weather conditions for Wednesday’s launch look favorable for the mission, both at the launch site and in the recovery zone. SpaceX’s broadcast should go live about 15 minutes before liftoff.

Starlink launch.

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