According to NASASpaceflight.com sources, SpaceX’s next Starlink satellite launch will have to wait a bit longer after slipping about a week from its former April 16th target.
Recently discussed on Teslarati, SpaceX has planned what is effectively a “return to flight” launch just weeks after Falcon 9 suffered its first in-flight engine failure in almost eight years. While the rocket was able to adjust on the fly to ensure that the overall Starlink mission was a success, the unprecedentedly reused Falcon 9 booster was lost during its landing attempt. More importantly, the Merlin 1D engine failure immediately raised the concern of NASA and the US military, SpaceX’s most important launch customers.
Expected to launch on thrice-flown Falcon 9 booster B1051, a successful return-to-flight so soon after SpaceX’s Starlink-5 anomaly would strongly imply that the company has already identified and characterized the cause of that March 18th hiccup with a significant degree of confidence. While Starlink-6 (the seventh Starlink launch overall) wont exactly replicate the conditions preceding Starlink-5’s in-flight engine failure, a successful launch would hopefully help alleviate any major concerns from SpaceX’s customers. That mission, however, will now have to wait another week or so to launch.
While not quite as flight-proven as B1048, the Falcon 9 booster that suffered an engine failure and was lost at sea last month, SpaceX (according to Next Spaceflight) has assigned Falcon 9 booster B1051 to its seventh Starlink launch. Since its first flight in March 2019, supporting Crew Dragon’s historic orbital launch debut, B1051 has completed two additional orbital-class launches and landings, lofting Canada’s three-satellite Radarsat Constellation Mission (RCM) in June 2019 and SpaceX’s fourth batch of 60 Starlink satellites in January 2020.
The Starlink-6 (Flight 7) mission will be B1051’s fourth, making it the sixth SpaceX Falcon 9 booster to launch four times since booster B1048 pushed the envelope in November 2019 – just five months ago. Aside from Falcon 9 B1048’s Starlink-5 engine failure and subsequently unsuccessful landing attempt, SpaceX also lost booster B1056 after its fourth flight in February 2020. Excluding two or three new Falcon 9 boosters assigned to critical missions for NASA and the US military, those two booster losses shrunk SpaceX’s rocket fleet by 30-40%, leaving just three flight-proven Falcon 9 boosters for other Starlink or customer missions.
SpaceX does have two twice-flown Falcon Heavy side boosters, said by CEO Elon Musk to be relatively easy to convert into Falcon 9 boosters, but their status is currently unknown, leaving them as the wildcards of SpaceX’s rocket fleet.
For SpaceX to be able to continue an ambitious Starlink launch cadence throughout the rest of 2020, the successful recovery of flight-proven boosters like B1051, B1049, and B1059 will likely be uniquely paramount over the next few months. Assuming SpaceX is able to successfully launch its first astronauts on Crew Dragon (NET late May) and complete a second US military GPS satellite launch (NET June 30th), two once-flown boosters will thankfully enter the company’s fleet, raising it to five (or seven) strong in by July or August.
SpaceX’s next Starlink launch is now scheduled for no earlier than (NET) April 22nd, give or take a day or two.