SpaceX aces Starlink launch, landing, and catch as Elon Musk teases public beta ETA

After a full 19 days of delays, Falcon 9 B1058 finally lifted off from Pad 39A with 60 new Starlink satellites. (Richard Angle)

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket has successfully launched the 12th batch of ~60 operational Starlink satellites, bringing more than 19 days of delays and five separate launch attempts to a welcome close.

SpaceX’s Starlink-12 success comes in the midst of an unusual scourge of launch scrubs and aborts that began with United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) latest Delta IV Heavy launch and continued with both SpaceX’s Starlink-12 and GPS III SV04 missions. Largely coincidental, the only direct ties between the myriad ULA and SpaceX delays were the occasional bout of bad weather and the US Air Force-organized launch range’s prioritization of ULA’s multibillion-dollar spy satellite launch – forcing SpaceX to stand down during ULA launch attempts.

As of now, ULA’s NROL-44 Delta IV Heavy launch is entering the sixth week of delays since the mission’s first late-August launch attempt and has no firm date set for the next attempt At the same time, during SpaceX’s first GPS III SV04 launch attempt, Falcon 9 suffered a rare last-second launch abort due to a propulsion problem that will likely take a week or more to resolve.

After a full 19 days of delays, Falcon 9 B1058 finally takes flight. (Richard Angle)

Thankfully, SpaceX’s patience with Starlink-12 ultimately paid off, and the mission was a spectacular success, launching shortly after dawn and culminating with a flawless Falcon 9 booster landing, record-breaking fairing catch, and another batch of 60 satellites in orbit. The first US-built rocket to launch NASA astronauts in almost a decade and also the current world-record holder for fastest reuse of an orbital-class rocket, Falcon 9 booster B1058 completed its third launch and landing in support of Starlink-12.

The mission was also the first time SpaceX has reused a Falcon 9 payload fairing twice – flying the same fairing half for the third time, in other words. Incredibly, SpaceX recovery ship GO Ms. Tree (formerly Mr. Steven) actually managed to catch the thrice-flown fairing in its football field-sized net, potentially guaranteeing a fourth flight. The catch was SpaceX’s seventh overall (since June 2019) and its fourth fairing catch since July 2020, a strong sign that the company is honing in on consistent, repeatable catches.

Aside from rocket reusability, CEO Elon Musk also unexpectedly revealed that Starlink-12 pushed SpaceX past a major Starlink milestone, stating that “once these satellites reach their target position, [SpaceX] will be able to roll out a fairly wide public beta in [the] northern US & hopefully southern Canada.”

Prior to Musk’s October 6th tweet, President and COO Gwynne Shotwell had revealed in May 2020 that SpaceX would be ready to kick off the first public Starlink internet beta tests after Launch 14. Given that SpaceX has deorbited almost two-thirds of the first batch of 60 Starlink “v0.9” beta satellites, that 14-flight milestone is likely another two launches out.

Based on past launches and assuming that all 60 Starlink-12 spacecraft are healthy, the satellites should be able to power up ion thrusters and climb to operational orbits (i.e. “reach their target position[s]” within 4-5 weeks. With an unprecedented constellation of 700+ Starlink satellites in orbit, SpaceX’s first “fairly wide” public beta test could begin as early as November 2020.

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Eric Ralph: I write about space, among other things.
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