Did you happen to hear about the Chinese rocket company that flew a test of booster that can land last week? My YouTube feed suddenly erupted in stories that this was competition for SpaceX and China was going to be awesome. So I watched the video. The booster's flight reminded me most of the flights of the test article we called Hoppy (more properly called Starhopper). It took off vertically but didn't really hover at height, just slowed down and then started descending. It finally hovered briefly before landing.
It didn't look like Hoppy; if anything, it resembles Blue Origin's New Shepard, except not quite as phallic looking. Hoppy's flight was in August of 2019 and did more than this test article did in its test flight.
The simple fact is that there is no competition now or coming in the next couple of years for the Falcon 9. As I mentioned last night, we had the weather to allow a good look at the latest SpaceX Starlink satellite launch, called 6-26, so we got to watch booster B1058 step up in the record books to its 18th successful mission. Stephen Clark, the recent addition to space reporting at Ars Technica, did an article on the mission and B1058 itself.
...For its maiden launch on May 30, 2020, the rocket propelled NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken into the history books on SpaceX's first mission to send people into orbit.
This ended a nine-year gap in America's capability to launch astronauts into low-Earth orbit and was the first time a commercial spacecraft achieved this feat. At that time, the rocket was fresh from SpaceX's factory in Southern California, glistening white in color, with a bright red NASA "worm" logo emblazoned on the side.
Over the course of its flights to space and back, that white paint has darkened to a charcoal color. Soot from the rocket's exhaust has accumulated, bit by bit, on the 15-story-tall cylinder-shaped booster. The red NASA worm logo is now barely visible.
In its 18 flights, B1058 has lifted far more than just that first manned flight, officially called the Demo 2 mission of the Crew Dragon capsule. Clark mentions specifically that B1058 has put 846 satellites into orbit, most of which have been Starlinks. SpaceX's few words on the mission include that B1058, "previously launched Crew Demo-2, ANASIS-11, CRS-21, Transporter-1, Transporter-3, and now 13 Starlink missions." (Transporter missions are SpaceX's ride sharing missions to orbit, each carrying many satellites).
B1058 before her first flight, the Demo 2 mission in May of 2020. Brand new, gleaming white. Image credit: SpaceX.
SpaceX engineers emphasize that even with 278 launches of Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy rockets, they still learn something with every flight. It helps that they recover most of the vehicle; the whole booster and the payload fairings. That gives them a lot to study. They have the evidence they're doing things right in the 249 consecutive successful missions since the 2016 pre-flight explosion of a Falcon 9 on its launch pad at Cape Canaveral.
"I see the fight rate can only occur if I can increase reliability, so that they're not competing entities," a SpaceX official recently told Ars. The official also said SpaceX might extend the limit on Falcon 9 booster flights beyond 20, the number at which Falcon 9s are currently certified for Starlink missions. The limits are lower for flights with customer payloads.
All that said, SpaceX eventually plans to discontinue the Falcon 9 in favor of the completely reusable Starship. That's just not happening until Starship is completely proven out, taking both satellites and astronauts up. I read that as No Earlier Than the end of the decade.
There are 8 weeks or 56 days left in the year as of Sunday. This was the 79th Falcon launch of the year, or 1.8 (79/44) launches per week. That looks to be about 15 launches left this year, for a total of 94. Next year's goal is 144 launches.