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SpaceX Falcon 9’s next Starlink launch will reuse a Falcon Heavy fairing for the first time

SpaceX successfully recovered both Falcon Heavy fairing halves after its April 2019 Arabsat 6A launch. (SpaceX/Elon Musk)

SpaceX has announced that a thrice-flown Falcon 9 booster successfully completed a static fire test ahead of the company’s first launch in three months, set to be Starlink’s ‘v1.0’ launch debut. In a twist, SpaceX says that the mission will be the first to reuse a full payload fairing, recovered after Falcon Heavy Block 5’s April 2019 launch debut.

Neither of the two fairing halves recovered after Falcon Heavy Block 5’s Arabsat 6A mission were actually caught by fairing recovery ship Ms. Tree (formerly Mr. Steven). Instead, both halves gently landed in the Atlantic Ocean – more than 1000 km (620 mi) off the coast of Florida – and were carefully lifted onto different recovery ships.

As it turns out, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk actually revealed that this fairing reuse was planned shortly after both halves were successfully lifted out of the water, indicating that both halves would fly again on an unspecified 2019 Starlink launch. Things haven’t gone quite as planned with said Starlink launch, which has suffered approximately 1-2 months of delays for unknown reasons, but whatever the source of those delays was, it appears to have been successfully dealt with.

After a successful wet dress rehearsal and static fire on November 5th, SpaceX says that the 60-satellite Starlink-1 mission – the first flight of the finalized ‘v1.0’ satellite design – is on track to lift off on November 11th, likely around 10 am Eastern Time (15:00 UTC). Starlink-1 will be SpaceX’s second Starlink launch of 2019, following the largely successful May 2019 launch debut of 60 Starlink v0.9 satellites. Although several satellites suffered anomalies (as expected), SpaceX remains in contact with all 60, while 50 successfully reached their final ~550 km (340 mi) orbits and have been operating ever since.

Since that launch, SpaceX has successfully demonstrated a range of capabilities, including streaming high-quality videos, playing video games, and more. CEO Elon Musk recently claimed to have tweeted over internet service provided by Starlink satellites, likely signifying the first public test of SpaceX’s self-built user terminals, ground antennas that customers will use to connect to the Starlink network. Finally, SpaceX COO and President Gwynne Shotwell recently revealed that the US Air Force has begun to carefully test Starlink’s capabilities, part of a ~$29M contract it awarded SpaceX last year. The USAF is testing connectivity to high-performance aircraft and has sustained speeds of more than 600 Mbps (75 MBps or 1 GB every ~13 seconds) over air-to-satellite Starlink links, impressive but still only ~3% of a single satellite’s full bandwidth.

Unintuitively, although SpaceX’s first Falcon fairing reuse is not going to involve fairing halves caught with one of its iconic recovery ships, that fact is actually more encouraging for Starlink as a whole. If Starlink satellites are robust enough to shrug some minor contaminants from sea spray and tolerate the launch environment without acoustic insulation panels, SpaceX will theoretically be able to recover and reuse fairings even if net catches don’t work every time.

Of course, as illustrated by the recent arrival and outfitting of brand new fairing recovery ship GO Ms. Chief, SpaceX’s goal clearly continues to be catching every fairing half it launches. The ability to reuse water-landed fairings just means that even fairings that miss their catch will likely still be reusable – even if only on internal Starlink launches.

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SpaceX Falcon 9’s next Starlink launch will reuse a Falcon Heavy fairing for the first time
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