Update: SpaceX has called off Monday’s launch attempt for what appears to be technical reasons and will try again on Tuesday, November 22nd.
A SpaceX recovery ship is headed more than a thousand kilometers downrange to support the second expendable Falcon 9 rocket launch in nine days.
No earlier than (NET) 9:57 pm EST (02:57 UTC) on Monday, November 21st, a Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to lift off from SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) LC-40 pad carrying the Eutelsat 10B geostationary communications satellite. For unknown reasons, the French communications provider paid extra to get as much performance as possible out of Falcon 9, requiring SpaceX to expend the rocket’s booster instead of attempting to land and reuse it.
The mission will be Eutelsat’s third Falcon 9 launch in less than three weeks and will wrap up a trio of launch contracts the company secretly signed with SpaceX to move satellites off of competitor Ariane Group’s unavailable Ariane 5 and delayed Ariane 6 rockets. In a rare coincidence, Eutelsat 10B will also be SpaceX’s second expendable Falcon 9 launch in a row and the third Falcon launch to expend a booster this month. But like those two other missions, not all of the Falcon rocket tasked with launching Eutelsat 10B will be lost.
While SpaceX’s spectacular Falcon booster recovery and reuse usually takes center stage, the company has also managed to become the first entity in the world to successfully recover and reuse the deployable nosecone (fairing) that protects satellite payloads during launch. More importantly, Falcon fairing recovery and reuse have quietly become routine, reliable, and even accepted by an increasing number of paying customers. Out of 52 Falcon rockets launched in 2022, a minimum of 40 used at least one reused fairing half, and four of those 52 launches carried Dragon spacecraft (no fairing).
By all appearances, the performance penalty added by the extra mass of the hardware needed to recover Falcon fairings is also so minor that SpaceX can still recover fairings even when a given mission requires the company to expend a Falcon booster. That’s become especially clear within the last few weeks.
On November 1st, a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifted off for the fourth time ever, and intentionally expended one of its three first-stage boosters for the first time. Despite the booster’s disposal and record-smashing speed at main engine cut-off (MECO; 4 km/s or 8900 mph), SpaceX still managed to recover both of Falcon Heavy’s hypersonic fairing halves after they reentered Earth’s atmosphere and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean almost 1500 kilometers (~930 mi) downrange. Eleven days later, SpaceX expended a Falcon 9 rocket to launch two Intelsat communications satellites. Once again, both fairing halves were recovered – this time around 960 kilometers (598 mi) downrange.
Aiming for a region 1015 kilometers (630 mi) downrange, Eutelsat 10B’s fairing halves have the potential to travel further than any other piece of Falcon hardware before a successful recovery.
Compared to booster recovery, fairing recovery is more of a convenience than a necessity, and was pursued partially because it allowed SpaceX to avoid dramatically expanding its fairing production facilities in Hawthorne, California. Each Falcon Block 5 booster reuse likely saves SpaceX tens of millions of dollars, while CEO Elon Musk once implied that a standard Falcon fairing half costs about $3 million to build.* But given that SpaceX is now routinely reusing fairing halves five, six, or even seven times in two to three years, it’s likely that each fairing recovery still saves SpaceX a few million dollars.
*Musk specifically said that the fairing represents about 10% of the cost of a new Falcon 9 rocket. That cost could be higher than SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch price, which was $62 million in 2017 and has grown to $67 million in 2022.
As was the case with SpaceX’s most recent launch, which made Falcon 9 booster B1051’s 14th mission its last, the company has assigned another old Falcon 9 booster to launch Eutelsat 10B. The mission will be Falcon 9 B1049’s 10th and final launch, ending the career of the oldest booster in SpaceX’s fleet. B1049 debuted more than four years ago in September 2018. Older Falcon Block 5 boosters are generally more finicky and high-maintenance, which partially explains why B1049 will retire after completing four fewer launches than B1051, a booster that’s six months younger.
Tune in below to watch SpaceX expend a Falcon booster for the third time in one month – an unfamiliar ‘first’ for a company famous for landing rockets.