SpaceX delays Starlink launch as ocean outmatches drone ship upgrades

SpaceX says a Starlink launch has been delayed indefinitely by bad weather at the drone ship. (SpaceX)

SpaceX’s 13th Starlink launch has been indefinitely delayed by “severe weather in the recovery area, later explained by CEO Elon Musk as case of the drone ship losing its battle with the ocean.

Originally scheduled to launch as early as September 17th, Starlink-12 – the 12th Starlink v1.0 mission – was pushed to September 18th about an hour before liftoff. SpaceX didn’t offer a reason then but is now reporting that weather in the recovery zone (Atlantic Ocean) was to blame for the 24-hour recycle and the indefinite launch delay that followed soon after.

CEO Elon Musk went further, revealing that the SpaceX drone ship assigned to Starlink-12 was unable to hold its position in strong Atlantic Ocean currents, forcing the company to delay the mission indefinitely. Until conditions improve in SpaceX’s drone ship recovery zone, the company will likely be unable to launch Starlink missions. Musk, however, already has a solution in mind.

In the same tweet, Musk revealed that SpaceX means for its drone ship “thrusters to be upgraded for future missions,” an obviously intuitive response to drone ships being overpowered by ocean currents. There’s one simple problem, though: drone ship Just Read The Instructions, the same ship currently unable to hold its position in (admittedly strong) ocean currents, completed extensive upgrades just a handful of months ago.

Drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY), December 2019. (SpaceX)
Drone ship Just Read The Instructions (JRTI), January 2019. (Pauline Acalin)

Prior to those upgrades, JRTI and OCISLY were effectively identical – both sporting a few modest generators and four relatively small station-keeping thrusters (bright blue). After more than half a year of work, drone ship JRTI came out the other end with dramatically larger azimuth thruster pods and at least several times the power output. The space beyond drone ship JRTI’s booster landing deck has been more or less filled to the brim with new generators.

In other words, short of some major structural changes or a smaller landing area for Falcon boosters, it’s hard to imagine how SpaceX could substantially upgrade Just Read The Instructions’ already-upgraded generators and thrusters.

Drone ship JRTI has since been outfitted with dramatic thruster and power upgrades. (Richard Angle)

In drone ship JRTI’s defense, the Eastern seaboard is still feeling the remnants of Hurricane Sally at the same time as Hurricane Teddy is just a few days away. Just ~48 hours from now, Starlink-12’s Falcon 9 booster landing zone will be subject to 30-40 mph (50-70 km/h) winds and peak wave heights of 15 feet (~4.5m) in the shadow of Teddy. The seas in that region will likely remain untenable for booster landings until September 24th or 25th at the earliest without major changes in current forecasts.

Current climate models don’t necessarily predict an increase in the frequency of Atlantic Ocean hurricanes as a result of global warming, although warming will very likely boost the intensity of most hurricanes to a major degree. As such, it’s a bit of a wash whether investing heavily in dramatic drone ship performance upgrades would actually be worth it for Falcon booster recovery, given that the tropical storm season only lasts a fraction of the year. If SpaceX wants to consistently launch 50-100+ times per year out of Florida, it’s likely a no-brainer.

Falcon 9 B1051 and its Starlink-9 payload enjoy a Florida summer shower. (Richard Angle)

Regardless, if SpaceX does pursue upgrades far beyond Just Read The Instructions’ current setup, it will be fascinating to see what the company’s two workhorse drone ships end up looking like. If current forecasts hold, Starlink-12 is unlikely to launch until late next week, a delay that has pushed Starlink-13 (previously NET late September) into October.

Check out Teslarati’s newsletters for prompt updates, on-the-ground perspectives, and unique glimpses of SpaceX’s rocket launch and recovery processes.

SpaceX delays Starlink launch as ocean outmatches drone ship upgrades
To Top