With the launch of PAZ and two of their own Starlink demo satellites, SpaceX has completed its fourth successful launch of 2018, and continued an aggressive series of reusability-focused flight-tests.
Amazingly, the company managed to successfully recover a fairing intact for the first time ever, an absolutely crucial step towards ramping the Falcon family’s launch cadence and reusability. According to CEO Elon Musk, SpaceX’s fairing recovery vessel Mr. Steven missed the fairing by a few hundred meters, meaning that the fairing gently landed in the Pacific Ocean, rather than Mr. Steven’s now-famous fairing recovery net. This is quite possibly the first time in aerospace history that an orbital rocket’s payload fairing has been recovered intact, and the fairing in question looks very much intact.
As mentioned by Musk, that massive piece of hardware had to survive reentry into Earth’s atmosphere at no less than Mach 8, considerably more than two times faster than the famous SR-71 Blackbird spy plane. While the fairing’s parafoil appears to have sunk after being quickly detached, careful observers will note three vertical bars at its three corners, almost certainly the points where that parafoil attaches to them and allows it to gently float down to the ocean surface. While not nearly as consequential as SpaceX’s growing expertise with Falcon booster recovery and reuse, each fairing – made largely of carbon fiber composites – takes a huge amount of time and effort to complete, and cost upwards of $3 million each ($6m for both halves). In this sense, SpaceX has managed to recover a pallet of cash, as Musk humorously likened the effort fairing reuse to in 2017.
Given just how good the fairing’s condition appears to be, as well as the calm sea states, it’s very likely that SpaceX will try to pick up the landed fairing with a crane, although that would require a different vessel – Mr. Steven has no crane! Teslarati’s Pauline Acalin will undoubtedly be checking out the Port of San Pedro once Mr. Steven has returned to shore, in hopes of capturing the first-ever photos of a recovered orbital rocket fairing.
— Pauline Acalin (@w00ki33) February 22, 2018
Starlink hopes tempered despite apparent success
While only mentioned a few times during the webcast, the Falcon 9 that launched earlier today was also carrying additional co-passengers – two SpaceX demonstration satellites, in this case. Confirmed to have successfully deployed and begun communicating with SpaceX ground control, this is another huge accomplishment for SpaceX and marks their first-ever steps into dedicated satellite manufacturing and operation. Despite the significance of this event, SpaceX was keen to lower expectations for the satellite internet network, named Starlink. The following statement was provided during the webcast:
“Even if these satellites work as planned, we still have considerable technical work ahead of us to design and deploy a low Earth orbit satellite constellation. If successful, [this system] would provide people in low to moderate population densities around the world with affordable, high-speed internet access, including many that have never had internet access before.”
For all intents and purposes, this appears to be a significant departure from previous statements given about Starlink by the rocket company. The explicit mention of “low and moderate” population densities being the only focus of service contrasts heavily with a general sense that Starlink was intended from the outset to provide universal internet around the globe to anyone who could afford the service. This certainly serves as a confirmation that there are major technological hurdles that will need to be overcome for Starlink to become the universal internet many have come to hope for from SpaceX – it would appear that it will be quite difficult to serve high-density populations with SpaceX’s current choice of technologies for their constellation.
Still, the demand is undeniably there. Even readers of Teslarati expressed an immediate desire to ditch their cable companies and ISPs, both in the US and abroad. If SpaceX can make it happen, they will have hordes of eager ISP-hating internet users desperate for any alternatives, and your author is proudly among them. The badly served aside, it sounds like SpaceX may be pivoting towards Starlink as a method of connecting the underserved – mainly those in rural or undeveloped areas. Even in the US, this is a major problem for those that do not live near large cities, and US ISPs are exceptionally anti-consumer in these situations – often times charging obscene costs for cable installation or outright refusing to provide coverage. Starlink could be a boon for those individuals in the US and elsewhere, especially where a simple lack of infrastructure is the cause. Much of Africa suffers from this, although mobile networks have become a backbone for a relatively unique pattern of mobile phone usage.
Here’s to hoping that SpaceX manages to once again rise to an exceptional technological challenge. As with all R&D efforts, the company’s satellite effort would be helped immensely with additional funds, and thankfully Falcon 9 Block 5 is very nearly ready to fly its first missions. This highly reusable iteration of the rocket could enable SpaceX to fly dozens of missions with a single Falcon 9 booster, and would thus enable unprecedented profit margins for a launch company, at least in the interim. Eventually, SpaceX is bound to bring down its prices for the customer, but the first need to recoup their reusability and Falcon Heavy investments, while also ensuring a sound business plan to support the development of their BFR and BFS vehicles that may one day enable the colonization of space. Starlink may be another beneficiary of those profits, and could itself one day act as a source of reliable funding for SpaceX’s interplanetary endeavors.
Tom Cross – Twitter
Pauline Acalin – Twitter
Eric Ralph – Twitter