Starships & Enterprise

SpaceX Falcon-9 Ramping Up for High-Speed Access for All

On Sunday, March 14, at 6:01 a.m. EDT, B1051—the latest SpaceX Falcon 9 mission—thundered skywards from Space Launch Complex (SLC) 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The launch marked the 22nd successful launch in Elon Musk’s increasingly whistle-stop Starlink deployments, approaching weekly launches of reusable rocket components, with each deploying 60 quarter-ton satellites into low Earth orbit. Last week, SpaceX successfully launched B1058, and successfully landed it on the “Of Course I Still Love You” drone ship. Their next launch is scheduled to blast off next Sunday, from SLC 40.

Falcon 9 rockets consist of a first-stage booster powered by nine Merlin engines, a second-stage rocket powered by one Merlin designed to operate in the vacuum of space, and a nose cone that protects the cargo during launch. This was the ninth successful launch and landing of this Falcon 9 first-stage booster, which previously supported the launch of the un-crewed “Crew Dragon Demo-1 International Space Station resupply mission” in March 2019, the Canadian Space Agency’s RADARSAT constellation placement in June 2019, and the Sirius XM-7 next-generation radio satellite project. The same rocket has also launched a total of five previous Starlink missions, each placing 60 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit. This Sunday’s launch marked the 77th intact Falcon-9 booster recovery. The two fairing halves that form the nosecone were previously flown on the Transporter-1 mission in January, and now have two missions under their belts.  

SpaceX launched its first two test satellites, Tintin A and Tintin B February 22, 2018. By May 2019 SpaceX launched 60 more test satellites and by November 2019 had launched its first batch of 60 fully operational Starlink satellites. When astronomers worried that the constellation of silver comsats might obscure their observations, SpaceX added visors on the satellites to cut down the glare. Today’s Starlink launch expands the constellation of SpaceX’s internet satellites to over 1,300 Ku- and Ka-band non-geostationary communication sats. The satellites are designed for years of service, but when they fail, they burn up on reentry, cutting down on potentially dangerous space debris. When fully deployed, Starlink will be able to service locations across the globe where access is unreliable or completely unavailable. The relatively low orbital altitude (over 60 times closer to Earth than traditional satellites) promises low-latency, high-speed broadband internet service.

If Starlink launches have achieved “milk run” status, they are still spectacular: A 230-foot gleaming aluminum-lithium rocket hurtling skyward, powered by nine Merlin rockets generating over 1.7 million pounds of thrust.

A few seconds before launch the engines roar to life, and at 00:00:01 the ship blasts skywards. At 01:12, scarcely over a minute into its launch phase, the now supersonic ship throttles down as it enters Max Q (the moment of peak mechanical stress) and then throttles back up to punch the payload towards low Earth orbit.

At 02:33 the Falcon 9 first-stage main engines cut off (MECO) and at 02:36 the two stages separate. The first-stage falls back to Earth.

At 02:44 the second-stage single Merlin vac engine starts. At 03:10 the fairings that make up the nosecone protecting the satellite payload on its trip through the atmosphere separate and fall back to Earth to be retrieved and reused.

At 06:41, the first-stage entry burn completes, and nitrogen gas jets keep the rocket trajectory straight. A single Merlin rocket fires and gimbles to correct the descent, and at 08:26, the second-stage successfully lands on the “Of course I Still Love You” drone ship landing platform off the coast of Florida, to be cleaned up, refueled, and reused in as little as 45 days.

Meanwhile, in the vacuum of space, at 00:08:48 the second-stage rockets cut out (SECO-1) and the ship basically coasts for 37 minutes angling for position. Then at 00:45:33 the second-stage engine restarts for two seconds to give the vehicle a spin and assist in satellite placement. Finally, at 1:04:31 the Starlink satellites are released.

Off-camera, the sixty satellites deploy their solar panels and use Krypton Hall thrusters  to boost themselves from the 170-mile preliminary transfer orbit to their 340 mile operating orbits.

On camera or off, it’s all pretty dramatic stuff. These spectacular launches never seem to grow old, and they’re not likely to stop anytime soon. This last Sunday’s flight marks SpaceX’s eighth launch this year, and the second launch this year for N1051. Two more Falcon 9 Starlink deployments are scheduled in the remaining days of March, with many more to come.

Falcon-9 rockets have been deploying as many as 60 Starlink satellites at a go, and the Starlink constellation may eventually exceed 12,000 satellites. First-stage boosters count for 60 percent of the launch price of a single Falcon 9 and have been landed and recovered 76 times out of 87 attempts. The rockets are designed to fly up to ten times without significant repair or rebuilding. Each launch of each reusable booster makes for affordable access to low Earth orbit.

There is more. As spectacular as Falcon-9 launches are, they pale in comparison to the thrill provided by 165-foot SpaceX Starships. Still in prototype development, these stainless-steel beauties will be capable of delivering payloads more than 100 tons, or over 400 Starlink satellites at a shot. The Starship is designed to be 100 percent reusable: launch, land, refuel, and relaunch. Starship Serial Number 11 (SN-11) is in Boca Chica spaceport, Launch Pad B, and is scheduled to launch in the coming week. SN-8, SN-9, and SN-10 were so successful, that SN-11 is the last of that series. SpaceX has scrubbed further iterations and is finalizing SN-15 as the next-level prototype, Starlink-wise.

Starships were designed from the get-go to transport colonists to Mars and have been selected by NASA as one of three contenders to support Artemis goals of permanent stations on our Moon. And with their V-2-esque vertical launch, Flash Gordon-esque horizontal flight, and vertical tail fin landing, SpaceX Starship launches, if and when Falcon-9 rockets ever cease to impress, will pick up the slack for the foreseeable future.

Milk runs or not, SpaceX is rapidly expanding new capabilities in the sky. And it’s all happening right over our heads.

has traveled extensively in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Caribbean and the South Seas – winning hearts and minds in and out of uniform – federal, military, and freelance.  Now working exclusively freelance, he is fluent in German and English, with survival skills in French, Haitian Creole, Russian, Standard Arabic, Swahili and Samoan.

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