In one fell swoop, SpaceX has successfully launched the third Falcon 9 rocket in less than 72 hours, broken payload fairing reusability record, and placed the 2000th operational Starlink satellite in orbit.
After a string of delays from January 29th to February 2nd, Falcon 9 finally lifted off at 1:13 pm EST (18:13 UTC), February 3rd with the seventh batch of Starlink V1.5 satellites on a mission coincidentally known as Starlink 4-7. Falcon 9 booster B1061 completed its sixth spaceflight and orbital-class launch without issue, successfully sending an expendable Falcon upper stage and Starlink payload on their way to orbit and touching down on drone ship A Shortfall of Gravitas (ASOG) about nine minutes after liftoff.
While one of the rocket’s two fairing (nosecone) halves flew for the fourth time, the other half completed its sixth launch – a new record for fairing reusability approximately 27 months after SpaceX’s first fairing reuse. The record-breaking half likely last supported Starlink V1 L28 in May 2021. A separate half also flew for the fifth time and was recovered in January 2022. In comparison, it took SpaceX 32 months after the first Falcon booster reuse (March 2017) to launch the same booster for the fourth time and 41 months for the sixth time, highlighting both SpaceX’s growing expertise and how much easier reusing a fairing is relative to a rocket’s entire first stage.
With any luck, both Starlink 4-7 fairing halves will have successfully reentered Earth’s atmosphere, deployed GPS-guided parafoils, gently splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean, and been fished out of the water by a SpaceX recovery ship. SpaceX has never discussed its fairing reusability goals, so it’s unknown how many flights each half is nominally designed to support.
Inside that record-breaking fairing was the latest batch of 49 Starlink V1.5 satellites, which weigh about 30-40 kg (65-90 lb) heavier than Starlink V1 satellites and are mainly set apart by the addition of several laser links. Once enough laser-linked satellites are launched, SpaceX will be able to route user communications through space, precluding the need for a ground station to always be within line of sight of each satellite node. Aside from allowing Starlink to serve exceptionally remote users, laser links will also allow Starlink to break into the multi-billion-dollar aviation and maritime communications markets.
With Starlink 4-7, SpaceX has now launched 351 Starlink V1.5 satellites, 349 of which are likely functional and about 50 of which have already reached operational orbits. The mission also included the 2000th operational Starlink satellite launched by SpaceX since November 2019, likely raising the number of working Starlink satellites in orbit to just shy of 1900 (of 2016 total).
Starlink 4-7 was SpaceX’s sixth launch of 2022 less than five weeks into the year and the third successful Falcon 9 launch in 67 hours – a feat of launch cadence that only one other rocket family in history (Russia’s R-7 family) has achieved. SpaceX may have as many as 46 more Falcon launches planned this year.