SpaceX Falcon 9 greeted by iconic Florida sunset after first rocket landing of the decade

Falcon 9 B1049 recently became the second SpaceX booster to successfully launch and land four times and returned to port a few days ago. (Richard Angle)

After completing its fourth flawless orbital-class launch and landing in 16 months, SpaceX’s latest reusable Falcon 9 rocket has successfully returned to dry land and was greeted by a spectacular Florida sunset during its port arrival.

Safely secured aboard drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) by SpaceX’s famous Octagrabber robot, which uses claws its tank-like heft to physically hold the rocket down, Falcon 9 booster B1049 passed through the mouth of Port Canaveral on January 9th. This effectively marked the end of its third drone ship recovery and fourth landing overall since its orbital-class launch debut in September 2018, averaging a SpaceX launch every four months.

B1049.4 supported SpaceX’s second launch of upgraded Starlink v1.0 communications satellites and the 60 spacecraft it helped send to orbit almost certainly catapulted the company into the position of owning the world’s largest private satellite constellation – now measuring some 175 operational spacecraft strong. Those 60 new Starlink satellites have since deployed their solar arrays, performed basic systems checkouts, activated their krypton-fueled ion thrusters, and begun raising their orbits to around 350 km (220 mi). After arriving at 350 km, SpaceX will carefully analyze the performance of each satellite and send all healthy spacecraft to their final operational altitude of 550 km (340 mi).

Teslarati photographer Richard Angle was present for both sides of Falcon 9 B1049’s fourth orbital-class launch and landing, capturing the booster’s January 6th liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 40 (CCAFS LC-40) and its January 9th Port Canaveral arrival aboard drone ship OCISLY. Given the spectacular Florida sunset that greeted the rocket, B1049 clearly has a preferred color palette – fire.

Teslarati photographer Richard Angle captured these spectacular views of both SpaceX and the world’s first orbital rocket launch (and recovery) of 2020. (Richard Angle)

Falcon 9 B1049 is powered by nine Merlin 1D engines capable of burning liquid oxygen and refined kerosene (RP-1) to produce a maximum thrust of 7600 kN (1.7 million lbf), giving it a thrust to weight ratio of more than 1.4 even when fully loaded with some 525 metric tons (1.2 million lb) of propellant.

According to SpaceX and CEO Elon Musk, Falcon 9’s newest Block 5 boosters – debuted in May 2018 and expected to be the last major upgrade to the family – are designed to be capable of at least 10 orbital-class launches each. A step further, they could potentially be able to perform dozens of missions before retirement is unavoidable, although that would reportedly require the same sort of in-depth overhauls that are routine for modern airliners. Regardless of SpaceX’s aspirations of 10-100 flights per booster, the company is making great progress but undeniably has a long ways to go.

Falcon 9 B1049 wrapped up its fourth successful recovery on January 9th and headed to a nearby hangar for refurbishment less than four days later. (Richard Angle)

Still, it’s not actually as long as it may seem. On January 6th, Falcon 9 B1049 became the second SpaceX booster to successfully launch four times, following in the footsteps of B1048’s record-breaking fourth flight – completed in November 2019. Now in possession of two consecutively-built Falcon 9 boosters with four flights under each of their belts, SpaceX should be able to quickly determine whether its fleet of reusable rockets can be trusted with four launches (and more).

Additionally, after two months for technicians and engineers to inspect and repair the booster, B1048 could be ready for its fifth launch far sooner than later. SpaceX wrapped up B1049’s fourth post-recovery processing on January 13th – a relatively brisk three and a half days from port arrival to horizontal transport. The booster was moved to one of SpaceX’s many Cape Canaveral hangars, where – just like B1048 – it will be inspected, refurbished, and turned around for its fifth launch sometime in the near future.

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