Thursday, March 11, 2021. In the wee hours of this morning (3:13 a.m. EST), B1058, the latest SpaceX Falcon 9 mission, thundered skywards from Space Launch Complex (SLC) 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Today’s launch marks the 21st successful launch in Elon Musk’s rapid-fire Starlink deployments — approaching weekly launches of reusable rocket components — each deploying 60 500-pound satellites into low-Earth orbit. Last week, SpaceX successfully launched B1049, and successfully landed it on the “Of Course I Still Love You” drone ship. Their next launch is scheduled to blast off as early as this coming Sunday, from SLC 39A.
“Reusable” is not just a euphemism for SpaceX’s rockets. Today’s Falcon 9 first stage is a veteran workhorse, having pushed NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station (ISS) last May. The same rocket launched a South Korean military communications satellite into orbit last July, the CRS-21 Commercial Resupply Mission to the ISS last December, the Transporter-1 rideshare mission (deploying 143 satellites) and a Starlink run in January. This morning marked SpaceX’s 76th intact Falcon 9 booster recovery. The fairing halves that form the nosecone had three missions under their collective belts — five, after their successful retrieval by the two fairing retrieval boats, GO Navigator and GO Searcher.
If Starlink launches have achieved “milk run” status, they are still spectacular, and they never get old. How can they? Two hundred and thirty feet of gleaming aluminum-lithium rocket hurtling skyward, powered by nine Merlin rockets generating over 1.7 million pounds of thrust — it’s thrilling every time.
The engines throttle down as the ship approaches Max-Q (maximum dynamic pressure) and then throttle up to punch the payload towards low-Earth orbit. The Falcon 9 first stage separates, using jets of nitrogen for attitude control and to guide the rocket towards the “Just Read the Instructions” drone ship landing platform off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. A single Merlin rocket fires and gimbles to correct the descent, the four landing legs deploy, and the ship nestles down into a soft landing to be cleaned up, refueled, and reused in as little as 45 days. Meanwhile, the payload’s carbon fiber fairings separate and return Earthward to be retrieved and reused.
Just as dramatic, but performed off-camera, the 60 satellites deploy solar their arrays and use krypton-fueled Hall thrusters to boost themselves from the 170-mile preliminary transfer orbit to their 340-mile operating orbits. The relatively low orbital altitude (over 60 times closer to Earth than traditional satellites) promises low-latency, high-speed broadband internet service. Today’s Starlink launch expands the constellation of SpaceX’s internet satellites to almost 1,200 operational Ku- and Ka-band non-geostationary comsats. When fully deployed, Starlink will be able to service locations where access is unreliable or completely unavailable.
These spectacular launches aren’t likely to stop anytime soon. This morning’s flight marks SpaceX’s seventh launch of this year, with three more scheduled this month alone.
Falcon 9 rockets have been deploying as many as 60 Starlink satellites at a go, and the Starlink constellation may eventually exceed 12,000 satellites. That’s a lot of satellites, and a lot of launches. First-stage boosters count for 60 percent of the launch price of a single Falcon 9 and have been landed and recovered 75 times out of 86 attempts. Each launch of each reusable booster makes for seriously affordable access to low-Earth orbit.
And there’s more good news. As spectacular as Falcon 9 launches are, even these pale in comparison to the lightshow provided by 165-foot SpaceX Starships. Still in prototype development, these stainless-steel beauties will be capable of delivering payloads in excess of 100 tons — or over 400 Starlink satellites at a shot, and the Starship is designed to be 100 percent reusable: launch, land, refuel, and relaunch. That’s likely to speed things up a bit — Starlink-wise. And with their V-2-esque vertical launch, Flash Gordon–esque horizontal flight, and vertical tail fin landing, SpaceX Starship launches — if and when Falcon-9 rockets ever cease to impress — will pick up the slack for the foreseeable future.