For the third time, SpaceX drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) has headed out to sea to support a booster landing attempt after the company’s tenth Starlink launch.
Known as Starlink-9, the mission will be SpaceX’s ninth launch of upgraded Starlink v1.0 satellites and the tenth dedicated internet satellite launch overall. For reasons known and unknown, Starlink-9 has been the most delayed SpaceX launch in recent memory, slipping from June 23 to the 25th and 26th and then from July 8th, 11th, 29th, and 31st. Almost six weeks of delays recently culminated (so far) with a 24-hour slip from July 31st. Starlink-9 is now scheduled to launch no earlier than (NET) 3:21 am EDT (07:21 UTC) on Saturday, August 1st.
As unlikely as it may seem in the context of more than a month of delays, if that schedule holds, Starlink-9 will launch less than 48 hours after a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket is scheduled to send NASA’s newest Mars rover on its way to Mars. Prior to the last two slips, Starlink-9 and NASA’s Mars 2020 rover could have launched just 24 hours apart, give or take, but that ambitious schedule did not work out for unknown reasons.
Just like the first attempt last month, Falcon 9 booster B1051 is still assigned to Starlink-9 and will become the third SpaceX rocket to launch five times when it finally lifts off. Starlink-9 will be the second launch of SpaceX’s Smallsat Program, carrying two BlackSky Earth imaging spacecraft into orbit atop 57 Starlink v1.0 satellites.
The first Starlink rideshare was completed without issue on June 13th when Falcon 9 booster B1059 and a new upper stage helped place three Planet Skysats in orbit before deploying a stack of 58 Starlink satellites. Likely worth around $1 million per Skysat or BlackSky-sized satellite manifested, Starlink rideshares are a long shot from actually funding each launch but still represent significant savings when projected over the dozens to hundreds of Starlink launches SpaceX has planned.
According to SpaceX executives, 14 Starlink launches (~840 satellites) are needed before the company can seriously begin rolling out internet service to customers in the northern US and southern Canada. Several test programs are already underway in the form of private betas with SpaceX employees and families, while the first public beta tests could begin as early as next month.
As of now, SpaceX has completed nine Starlink launches since May 2019. Beginning in November 2019, eight of those nine launches have flown operational v1.0 satellites, meaning that SpaceX is likely six or so launches away from initial constellation operability. As of June 2020, it appeared that SpaceX could reach that milestone by the end of August, but Starlink-9’s unprecedented delays mean that the September/October time frame is now much more realistic target.
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