The 100th flight of a Falcon 9 rocket delivered 60 satellites to orbit for SpaceX’s Starlink network Tuesday night, adding another building block to a planned fleet of thousands of solar-powered space-based relay stations to beam broadband connectivity around the world.
The successful mission late Tuesday also set a new record for SpaceX’s rocket reuse program — one that could be broken again within months if SpaceX maintains its feverish launch cadence. For the first time, a reusable Falcon 9 booster completed its seventh trip to space and back on Tuesday night’s flight.
The Falcon 9 rocket fired its nine kerosene-fueled Merlin 1D engines and roared off pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air force Station at 9:13:12 p.m. EST Tuesday (0213:12 GMT Wednesday). The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) launcher darted through a broken cloud layer over the pad and rocketed toward the northeast from Cape Canaveral to line up with the mission’s targeted orbital plane within the Starlink network.
The rocket’s 15-story first stage booster dropped away from the Falcon 9 upper stage about two-and-a-half after liftoff, setting a course for a controlled touchdown on SpaceX’s drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” positioned several hundred miles northeast of Cape Canaveral in the Atlantic Ocean,
The booster — designated B1049 in SpaceX’s rocket inventory — reignited its center engine for a braking maneuver just before touchdown, then extended a landing gear before settling onto the deck of the drone ship. The apparently flawless landing punctuated the seventh mission of the B1049 vehicle, making it SpaceX’s “fleet leader.”
Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, has said the newest version of the Falcon 9 booster could fly 10 times without any major refurbishment, and perhaps 100 times with periodic overhauls.
Flying some 140 miles over the North Atlantic, 60 new Starlink internet satellites have deployed from the upper stage of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.
— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) November 25, 2020
Along with its reused first stage booster, the Falcon 9 launched with a recycled clamshell-like payload shroud, half of which flew on two previous missions. The other half of the fairing was a veteran one prior launch.
Two recovery vessels were dispatched to sea to retrieve the fairing halves from Tuesday night’s mission after they parachuted back to Earth from space.
While the booster and fairing shells descended back to Earth, the Falcon 9’s upper stage guided the 60 flat-panel Starlink satellites into a transfer orbit inclined 53 degrees to the equator. Around 15 minutes after liftoff, the upper stage released retention rods to allow the stack of 60 spacecraft to fly free from the rocket over the North Atlantic Ocean.
The Falcon 9 aimed to place the satellites into an elliptical orbit ranging between 132 miles (213 kilometers) and 227 miles (366 kilometers). A member of SpaceX’s launch team confirmed on a mission audio loop that the rocket achieved an on-target orbital insertion.
The launch was previously scheduled Saturday night, then delayed to Sunday, when SpaceX called off a launch attempt due to concerns about “mission assurance.” SpaceX bypassed a launch opportunity Monday due to a forecast of poor conditions in the Falcon 9 booster’s offshore landing zone, setting the stage for Tuesday’s countdown.
Tuesday night’s launch was the 23rd SpaceX mission of 2020, extending the company’s record cadence of flights. The previous record for the most SpaceX launches in a year was 21 missions in 2018.