Wednesday, November 13, 2019

SpaceX Pulled Off Two Firsts on Monday

Monday morning, with a 9:56 AM launch time SpaceX set a few notable firsts in their history.  The mission was to launch another 60 of their Starlink internet satellites, and that succeeded.  The notable firsts:
  • The first stage took it's fourth flight, the most-flown booster in their fleet.  
  • The mission included the first ever reuse of a payload fairing.  
Everyone knows about the recovery of their boosters, the most expensive portion of the rocket.  It took SpaceX Engineers a while to get the details down, but once they landed the first couple, the failures have been very rare.

During the last minute of the booster return flight, the video feed went down and it looked like we wouldn't see the landing of the booster on recovery ship OCISLY (Of Course I Still Love You); but it suddenly woke up just as the ship's deck started to be illuminated by the landing burn of the returning booster.  I was able to screen capture this a second before landing.

Regarding the fairings, though, puts it this way:
SpaceX uses identical fairings for its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. Each one costs about $6 million (roughly 10% of the $62 million Falcon 9 price tag) so there's a significant financial incentive to recover and reuse the fairings. SpaceX fairings are composed of two halves, each of which is equipped with small steering thrusters and parachute-like equipment to aid in recovery efforts. 
Both ships deployed in advance of Monday’s launch attempt in hopes of snagging the fairing halves. Unfortunately rough seas thwarted an attempt at another catch.
The fairing flown on Monday was from last April's Falcon Heavy launch of the Arabsat-6A communications satellite. SpaceX did not specify what sort of refurbishments the fairing halves have gone through or how many times they expect to reuse a recovered fairing. 

As for Starlink satellite themselves, this launch of 60 gives 120 of the prototypes for experimentation. They're in use now, but as SpaceX says, “We still have a long way to go from tweets to 4K videos, but we are on our way,” with the goal for the eventual number being “12,000 satellites, the company plans for its burgeoning cluster to eventually be more than 40,000 satellites strong.”  Say that again to yourself: 40,000 satellites in low earth orbit.
Musk said SpaceX will need at least 400 Starlink satellites in orbit for "minor" broadband coverage, and 800 satellites aloft for "moderate" coverage.

(Monday's group of 60 Starlink satellites just before being mounted for launch)

Recovering boosters, recovering fairings,  they seem to be moving toward learning how to recover upper stages, which could reduce the cost of a flight to essentially the cost of fuel.  Manufacturing, launching, and operating 12,000 to 40,000 satellites.  You can't accuse these guys of not being visionary. 


  1. Yep, they're getting seriously close to full reusability.

    I'm going to have to look into the StarLink thing. Sounds like a good way to have an orbital debris cascade event. Wonder if they have a deorbit capability in them.

    1. I was pondering the space junk problem, but more from the standpoint of whether they leave junk on orbit when they deploy. The proverbial screw moving at thousands of miles per hour. I guess the space junk tracking and orbital avoidance predictions have gotten better, too because most launches don't give a launch window with numbers like "1900 to 2000 hours except 1907 to 1909, 1919 to 1923 and 1934 to 1936 to avoid other satellites".

      Haven't read anything about deorbiting them. I think that article said they're 215 miles up; so not just skimming the atmosphere, but not particularly high either.

    2. I read the Wikipedia entry and it said the Hall-Effect thrusters for orbit management are also used for deorbit.

      We used to get our COLA reports direct from NORAD. Quite detailed, like you mention.

  2. Just dropping in to say that SpaceX probably won't do any further work on second stage retrieval for the current Falcon rocket. They're undergoing full-bore prototype testing for their next rocket system (Starship) where the second stage is a winged, fully reusable vehicle in its own right capable of landing on the Moon and Mars.

    Oh, and it's also built out of shiny stainless steel like any proper rocket should be.

    1. Yeah, I've seen it and posted about Starship.

      In addition to the one being built in Texas, which is probably the one most people have seen, there's one being built in the Cocoa, Florida area. It's pretty much straight across the Indian River lagoon from the Space Center.

    2. I was going to make a similar comment. One version of Starship will deliver payloads to Earth orbit. Elon Musk recently stated that the cost of a launch for a Superheavy/Starship would eventually get down to about $2 millon due to reusability. This is probably in current dollars. That cost would really open up access to outer space.

  3. I've always thought that Musk was a conman, but in a good way. Tesla is the con - I don't see it lasting. But Tesla is a con to fund Space X. I admire him. I even wrote a post comparing him to a certain character from Heinlein's The Man Who Sold the Moon.

    I absolutely approve. This is important.

    1. How about instead of con man we say carney barker? The difference is the con man knows he's ripping you off while the carney barker is just a flamboyant salesman. In the end, he's whipping up enthusiasm and selling you something you want -- maybe with a floor show.

      We could go and on about the merit of Tesla electric cars (or the lack of merit) but it's not like they don't do anything. People are getting a car for their money, I leave it to them to decide if they're worth what they paid.

      Over the summer, probably because of the times I was out bike riding, I'd see the same Tesla at least once a week, within a half mile either side of the same stop light. It had a personalized (vanity) license tag that read, “SKYNET.”

      And at the moment, I'm sure I read the Man Who Sold the Moon somewhere around 50 to 55 years ago and am even more sure I don't recall the first thing about it!

    2. I'm good with carney barker. His motives are really pure, but his actions? Maybe a bit sketchy. I'm really on his side, and Tesla cars are neat, but ultimately uneconomical. The real achievement is getting us off this rock. The only figure that can stand next to Musk is von Braun.

  4. 6 million for a fairing, a basically inert hunk of streamlined metal, seems more than a wee bit excessive, but what do I know. I'm no rocket surgeon.

    1. They're not metal, they're carbon fiber ($$), and have a LOT of stuff to them besides the shell itself.