SpaceX scrubs Falcon 9’s seventh-flight debut for more “mission assurance”

Falcon 9 B1049.6, a new upper stage, and 60 Starlink-15 satellites stand vertical at SpaceX's CCAFS LC-40 launch pad, November 20th. (Richard Angle)

Update: SpaceX has scrubbed Falcon 9’s seventh-flight debut and the 14th Starlink launch this year to allow more time for “data reviews” and “additional mission assurance” and is now scheduled to launch Starlink-15 no earlier than (NET) 9:34 pm EST (02:34 UTC) Monday, November 23rd.

In a tweet shortly after the decision was made, SpaceX said that both the Falcon 9 rocket and Starlink payload were still healthy, adding a bit of mystery to the decision. On SpaceX’s official mission control audio stream, the Starlink-15 launch director (LD) – most likely Ricky Lim – announced the scrub around T-35 minutes, effectively the deadline for the start of Falcon 9 propellant loading. For whatever reason, SpaceX was not confident enough to commit to launch and LD stated that the scrub had been called to allow for “additional mission assurance” – the second time in recent memory that the company has used that particular industry euphemism.

B1049 stands vertical at LC-40 shortly before its sixth launch, Starlink-10. Starlink-15 will mark the rocket’s seventh flight. (Richard Angle)

Regardless of the reason, the first seventh flight (sixth reuse) of a Falcon 9 booster is certainly cause enough for caution, as it means that SpaceX is very literally pushing the envelope of orbital-class rocket reusability. Thus far, the company’s record of success during similar first-flight reuse milestones remains flawless – the preservation of which will likely go far to salve the anxieties of more conservative customers like NASA and the US military.

SpaceX says that Starlink-15’s November 23rd backup date may not hold per the threat of bad weather at Falcon 9 B1049’s Atlantic Ocean landing zone several hundred miles downrange. Stay tuned for updates as the company tracks towards what could be its first four-launch month ever.

Second from the top, Falcon 9 booster B1049 was spotted inside SpaceX’s Pad 39A hangar before it headed to LC-40 for Starlink-15. (SpaceX)

SpaceX has static fired a record-breaking Falcon 9 booster and says it’s ready to launch its 14th Starlink mission this year just a day and a half after sailing past the company’s previous annual launch record.

Set in 2018, SpaceX’s previous annual launch record stood at 21 missions – 20 Falcon 9s and one Falcon Heavy. Now, a little over halfway through November, SpaceX has easily bested itself, launching for the 22nd time to deliver oceanographic satellite Sentinel 6A to a polar orbit on November 21st.

Back on the East Coast, SpaceX fired up six-flight Falcon 9 booster B1049 just five hours after Sentinel 6A’s successful launch, setting the rocket up for its seventh flight – a first for SpaceX and reusable rocketry – in support of Starlink v1.0 Flight 15 (Starlink-15).

On November 21st, SpaceX completed its first West Coast launch in almost 18 months – also its 22nd launch in 2020, setting a new annual record for the company. (SpaceX)

Following an apparent November 20th static fire abort and a brief 24-hour delay, B1049 is now scheduled to lift off no earlier than 9:56 pm EST (02:56 UTC), November 22nd with some 16 metric tons (~35,000 lb) of Starlink communications satellites in tow. Designed to ultimately blanket the Earth in affordable high-quality broadband internet, SpaceX has already begun to roll out a public beta test to what looks like one or several thousand users across the northern US and southern Canada.

Reddit user wandering-coder put SpaceX’s Starlink Beta internet through its paces in the middle of nowhere, proving that the constellation really can deliver on its promise. (Reddit /u/wandering-coder)
Reddit user slapmonkay received a beta invite to test Starlink internet in Montana and the state’s northern neighbor could be next. (Reddit – /u/slapmonkay)

Speaking on a November 21st Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) thread, one of the SpaceX Starlink engineers participating revealed that the company is targeting a “wider beta” rollout as early as late-January 2021. Despite having some 820 functioning Starlink satellites in orbit, approximately a third were recently launched and are still raising their orbits or waiting in phasing orbits to properly orient themselves and maximize Starlink internet coverage.

While it’s effectively impossible to predict which orbital ‘plane’ a given batch of Starlink satellites is targeting, it’s likely that the ~300 spacecraft still making their way to operational orbits will complete their journeys within the next 60 days. In general, it takes roughly 2-3 months from any given Starlink launch for all ~60 satellites to reach their operational 550 km (~340 mi) orbits, a process usually performed in batches of 22 – each essentially representing one evenly-space ring of internet coverage a few hundred miles wide.

Despite SpaceX tracking towards a truly record-breaking year of ~25+ launches, CEO Elon Musk revealed that the company is pushing to achieve as many as 48 launches in 2021, more than half of which would likely be Starlink missions.

Tune in below to catch SpaceX’s Sunday Starlink launch live later tonight.

Eric Ralph: I write about space, among other things.
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