SpaceX has successfully orbited another batch of 60 Starlink satellites, landed the Falcon 9 booster that launched it, and caught both halves of the rocket’s payload fairing.
Starlink-13 is now the second time ever that SpaceX has simultaneously recovered a Falcon 9 booster and caught both fairing halves on the same mission, coming just shy of three months after the first success.
The first full-fairing catch came just shy of three months prior, during SpaceX’s launch of ANASIS II military communications satellite for South Korea. SpaceX confirmed the back-to-back catch around an hour after Falcon 9’s July 20th liftoff, followed by onboard videos showing both catches.
For twin recovery ships GO Ms. Tree (formerly Mr. Steven) and GO Ms. Chief, the successful recovery effectively marked the first time that the pair achieved their design goal of whole-fairing recovery. Technically, SpaceX has already proven that fairing halves can be flown at least three times even after missed catches and ocean splashdowns, but avoiding saltwater immersion helps avoid corrosion and makes reuse far easier.
A step further, both of the Starlink-13 Falcon fairing halves SpaceX caught on October 18th had already launched twice before – the second and third times SpaceX has flown the same fairing half three times. Unfortunately, one of the two halves apparently tore through the receiving ship’s net when it was caught and could briefly be seen banging against the net’s supporting arms. SpaceX will have to determine if it suffered damage that might prevent future reuse.
Meanwhile, around thirty minutes prior to Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief’s second fairing recovery hat trick, Starlink-13’s assigned Falcon 9 booster successfully landed aboard drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY). Designated B1051 and originally tasked with supporting Crew Dragon’s uncrewed orbital launch debut back in March 2019, Starlink-13 was the first stage’s sixth successful launch and landing, making it the second Falcon 9 booster to complete six flights.
For Starlink-13, the use – and successful recovery – of a five-flight booster and two-flight fairing likely means that the marginal cost of the mission to SpaceX was little more than the cost of propellant (< $500k) and Falcon 9’s expendable upper stage (~$10M), equivalent to an almost inconceivable ~$700 per kilogram of actual Starlink satellites launched. Assuming each Starlink satellite costs approximately $250k, it’s easy to believe that SpaceX is regularly launching 60 high-performance communications satellites for an all-in cost of just $25M-30M.
As an example of the impact of that extraordinary affordability, if SpaceX put the entirety of its latest $2B capital raise towards Starlink missions, it could likely complete 60-80 launches, placing some 3600-4800 new satellites in orbit. The entire first phase of SpaceX’s Starlink constellation – offering uninterrupted broadband internet anywhere on Earth – requires ~4400 satellites.
Coincidentally, Falcon 9 B1049 – the first booster to launch and land six times – was spotted just outside SpaceX’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) LC-39A launch facilities the day (Oct 17) before B1051 lifted off from the same pad. The booster appears to be more or less waiting for its next flight, implying that all post-flight processing has already been completed since its last launch on August 18th.