SpaceX Falcon 9 booster set for record-breaking landing after lessons learned from engine failure

B1049 is pictured here in January 2019 after its second launch. (Pauline Acalin)

SpaceX has successfully fired up a Falcon 9 booster ahead of its sixth Starlink launch this year, a mission that could also mark a record-breaking rocket landing just two months after an in-flight engine failure precluded a similar attempt.

After today’s successful static fire test, SpaceX is now targeting its eighth Starlink mission overall – also the seventh v1.0 satellite launch – at 3:53 am EDT (07:53 UTC) on Sunday, May 17th from the company’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) LC-40 pad. Barring major surprises, Starlink-7 will be SpaceX’s last orbital mission before what is arguably the most significant launch in the company’s history – Crew Dragon’s inaugural ‘Demo-2’ NASA astronaut test flight.

Scheduled no earlier than 4:33 pm EDT (21:33 UTC) on May 27th, it’s unsurprisingly crucial that Falcon 9’s Starlink-7 launch goes perfectly, as any in-flight anomaly would almost certainly delay Crew Dragon’s crucial NASA mission. Additionally, if Starlink-7 slips more than a day or two, it could easily force SpaceX to push the mission into late May or early June, as Crew Dragon’s first crewed launch will also need a drone ship to recover its brand new Falcon 9 booster.

Falcon 9 B1049 returned to port on January 9th after launching Starlink V1 L2. (Richard Angle)

Drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) departed Port Canaveral earlier today for Starlink-7 and is heading some 630 km (390 mi) northeast into the Atlantic Ocean to prepare for Falcon 9 booster B1049’s landing attempt. As of now, OCISLY is SpaceX’s only operational drone ship, although sister ship Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) is in the midst of an extensive refit after the landing platform was moved from Los Angeles to Cape Canaveral late last year.

With work ramping up over the last month or two and most recently culminating in the drone ship’s first sea trial today (May 13), JRTI has been extensively upgraded with a dozen large generators and four massive thrusters. It appears that the ship may be close to operational readiness, although it seems unlikely that it will be ready in time to support Crew Dragon’s Demo-2 booster landing needs just two weeks from now.

Typically, OCISLY has taken around 7-10 days from port departure to arrival to recover Falcon 9 boosters after Starlink missions, most of which is spent being slowly towed by tugboats. In simple terms, assuming no technical or weather-related launch delays, that would give SpaceX just a handful of days to remove booster B1049 and turn OCISLY around to recovery Crew Dragon Demo-2 Falcon 9 booster B1058. Unfortunately, to recover Starlink-7 Falcon 9 booster B1049, OCISLY is heading more or less straight for a tropical depression forming in the Atlantic Ocean. High seas in the recovery area are an almost guaranteed launch delay unless SpaceX is willing to expend B1049 (very unlikely).

Falcon 9 B1048 became the first booster to launch five times but suffered SpaceX’s first in-flight engine failure since October 2012, followed by an unsuccessful landing attempt as a direct result. (Richard Angle)

Aside from the fact that SpaceX’s fleet of flight-proven boosters has rapidly diminished after the recent losses of B1056 and B1048, B1049 is particularly valuable because Starlink-7 will be its fifth launch – only the second time a booster has reached that milestone. If it successfully lands, it will be the first time a Falcon booster has landed five times, making it SpaceX’s fleet leader and reusability pathfinder.

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster set for record-breaking landing after lessons learned from engine failure
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