The late-night launch of a Falcon 9 rocket with another batch of Starlink internet satellites on Sunday set a new record for most flights by a SpaceX launch vehicle, with the rocket’s first stage flying for the 16th time. SpaceX now aims to launch reusable Falcon 9 boosters up to 20 times, double the company’s original goal.
The flight followed several months of inspections and refurbishments for SpaceX’s most-flying rocket, a process that included a “re-certification” of the booster to prove, on paper at least, that it could fly up to five more times after completing its 15th launch. Landing last December.
Sunday night’s mission got a good start to the life of the extended booster.
The record-setting rocket took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 11:58 p.m. EDT (03:58 UTC) with 22 second-generation Starlink satellites. The rocket’s nine Merlin-fueled engines fired kerosene for about two and a half minutes to climb to the edge of space, then the booster separated for descent toward one of SpaceX’s floating landing pads northeast of the Bahamas.
The upper stage engine fired to continue propelling the Starlink satellites into orbit. SpaceX declared the launch a success after deploying the Starlink payloads about an hour after liftoff. The company’s global Internet network now has about 4,400 satellites in orbit, according to Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist who tracks spaceflight activity.
SpaceX plans to move thousands more Starlink satellites into orbit in the coming years to add capacity to the network, which now has more than 1.5 million subscribers.
The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket, which is about 15 stories high, settled to the unmanned deck less than nine minutes after launch, using thrust from its central engine to slow the descent. It was the 46th launch of SpaceX’s Falcon family of rockets this year, with an average cadence of one flight every four days.
“The Falcon 9 first stage has launched and has now successfully landed for the 16th time,” said Kate Tice, a SpaceX engineer who hosts the company launch webcast. “Today’s landing marks our 206th total landing of an orbital-class rocket, including the Falcon 9 and Falcon missions. It is in.”
It was SpaceX’s 216th consecutive Falcon family rocket mission, a record unmatched in the history of space launch vehicles.
The booster rocket, number B1058 in SpaceX inventory, first launched with the company’s first launch of astronauts in May 2020, sending NASA crew members Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken into space on the Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission. That mission ended a nearly nine-year gap in US launches that carry astronauts into orbit.
SpaceX’s fleet flagship booster has now launched 801 spacecraft and payloads, plus two astronauts, in more than three years of service.
This is Falcon 9’s second enhanced life extension
Bill Gerstenmaier, SpaceX’s vice president of construction and flight reliability, said in May that engineers were in the process of certifying Falcon 9 boosters for up to 20 flights for Starlink missions. Launches with customers’ satellites may be limited to missiles with fewer flights. NASA has only certified reusable Falcon 9 boosters with five flights or less for the agency’s astronaut missions to the International Space Station.
“This gives us a lot of capacity to keep reusing the boosters and keep flying,” Gerstenmaier said. “I think we can meet our statement, in addition to some, with the reinforcements we have in the business.”
SpaceX’s latest version of the Falcon 9 rocket design — called Block 5 — first flew in 2018. At the time, SpaceX’s goal was to launch each Falcon 9 Block 5 booster 10 times. With boosters still in good shape after each flight, SpaceX has extended its lifespan to 15 launches and landings, according to a report last year by Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine.
The magazine reported that SpaceX put components reinforced through vibration testing for four times the fatigue life of what they would experience over 15 flights, giving engineers confidence that the rockets will continue to fly successfully.
The company has about 16 flight-proven Falcon boosters in its fleet, as well as several new rockets that are scheduled to fly by the end of the year. Each mission requires an entirely new upper stage. Not only does reusing the first stage and payload width lower the company’s internal launch cost—a figure believed to be less than $30 million per Falcon 9 flight—it unlocks a higher rate of flight without stressing the plant.
SpaceX kicked off the year with the goal of flying 100 missions in 2023, the most flights in a year by any launch provider. SpaceX will fly 61 times in 2022. The Falcon 9 remains the workhorse of the launch industry as SpaceX tests its larger Starship, which engineers designed to be fully reusable with a faster launch cadence.
But the main limitation to SpaceX’s stark launch rate isn’t the availability of ready-to-fly rockets—it’s the shift of the company’s three Falcon 9 launch pads. SpaceX flies from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station about once every five days. The Falcon 9 launch pad at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California can be prepared for another mission in as little as 10 days.
SpaceX’s other launch site, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, is currently the only platform to support crew and cargo flights to the space station and the only facility designed for the Falcon Heavy rocket. These flights have priority at Kennedy Launch Complex 39A, and it takes up to three weeks to reconfigure the platform when switching between Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy missions.
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