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SpaceX Starlink launch to fly same Falcon nosecone for the fifth time

SpaceX says that its 14th Starlink launch of 2021 will also be the first mission to fly a reusable Falcon payload fairing for the fifth time, marking a significant milestone just 18 months after fairing reuse began.

Scheduled to lift off no earlier than (NET) 2:59 pm EDT (18:59 UTC) on Wednesday, May 26th, Starlink-28 will be SpaceX’s 12th dedicated Starlink launch and 14th Starlink launch overall this year – representing more than 780 satellites safely delivered to orbit in five months. Perhaps most notably, Starlink-28 – if successful – will push SpaceX past a milestone that COO and President Gwynne Shotwell recently stated would enable virtually uninterrupted Starlink coverage of the populated world.

SpaceX says that Starlink-28 will fly with two flight-proven payload fairing halves – one having previously supported four Starlink missions and the other a Starlink mission and Transporter-1. Falcon fairings are vast nosecone-like structures built mainly out of carbon fiber and aluminum honeycomb composites and designed to maintain a sterile, controlled environment for satellites and protect them from the elements, heating, and aerodynamic stress while inside Earth’s atmosphere. SpaceX currently uses the same fairing design for all Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy satellite launches, simplifying its product line to keep costs as low as possible.

Historically, SpaceX executives have stated that each pair of Falcon fairings represents around 10% of the cost of Falcon 9 production, or $5 million. Due to the need for massive autoclave curing ovens, the volume and speed of Falcon fairing production has a firm lower limit save for expensive, space-hungry factory expansions. For SpaceX’s increasingly ambitious Starlink launch cadence goals, that means that fairing recovery and reuse is more valuable and essential than each pair’s price tag would otherwise suggest.

SpaceX reused a fairing for the first time on November 10th, 2019. (SpaceX)

SpaceX reused Falcon fairings for the first time on Starlink’s first operational v1.0 satellite launch in November 2019, approximately 18 months ago. Since then, of 28 operational Starlink missions, only 11 have flown new fairings, more than doubling the effective output of SpaceX’s limited fairing production capacity. All told, SpaceX has flown flight-proven fairings 34 times on 19 separate missions – almost every other Falcon 9 launch since November 2019.

Starlink-28 will fly one of its two fairing halves for the fifth time just 18 months after the first fairing reuse. In comparison, SpaceX’s Falcon booster reusability program took three years – 36 months – to go from first reuse to a fifth flight of the same booster. In other words, SpaceX fairing reusability is speeding right along as it crosses milestones more than twice as quickly as boosters did. Over the brief life of the program, fairing reuse has likely already saved SpaceX at least $90 million in nonrecurring costs while simultaneously freeing up a substantial portion of the company’s composites team to fill in on other composites projects and reducing or replacing the need for tens of millions of dollars of new production space and equipment.

One of the fairing halves pictured here will fly for the third time on Starlink-28. (Richard Angle)

Tune in at the link below around 2:45 pm EDT (18:45 UTC) to watch SpaceX’s Starlink-28 launch live.

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SpaceX orbits 60 more Starlink satellites, recovers booster, and catches fairing halves

SpaceX has successfully orbited another batch of 60 Starlink satellites, landed the Falcon 9 booster that launched it, and caught both halves of the rocket’s payload fairing.

Starlink-13 is now the second time ever that SpaceX has simultaneously recovered a Falcon 9 booster and caught both fairing halves on the same mission, coming just shy of three months after the first success.

Falcon 9 streaks towards space with the 60-satellite Starlink-13 payload in tow. (SpaceX)

The first full-fairing catch came just shy of three months prior, during SpaceX’s launch of ANASIS II military communications satellite for South Korea. SpaceX confirmed the back-to-back catch around an hour after Falcon 9’s July 20th liftoff, followed by onboard videos showing both catches.

For twin recovery ships GO Ms. Tree (formerly Mr. Steven) and GO Ms. Chief, the successful recovery effectively marked the first time that the pair achieved their design goal of whole-fairing recovery. Technically, SpaceX has already proven that fairing halves can be flown at least three times even after missed catches and ocean splashdowns, but avoiding saltwater immersion helps avoid corrosion and makes reuse far easier.

A step further, both of the Starlink-13 Falcon fairing halves SpaceX caught on October 18th had already launched twice before – the second and third times SpaceX has flown the same fairing half three times.

Meanwhile, around thirty minutes prior to Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief’s second fairing recovery hat trick, Starlink-13’s assigned Falcon 9 booster successfully landed aboard drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY). Designated B1051 and originally tasked with supporting Crew Dragon’s uncrewed orbital launch debut back in March 2019, Starlink-13 was the first stage’s sixth successful launch and landing, making it the second Falcon 9 booster to complete six flights.

For Starlink-13, the use – and successful recovery – of a five-flight booster and two-flight fairing likely means that the marginal cost of the mission to SpaceX was little more than the cost of propellant (< $500k) and Falcon 9’s expendable upper stage (~$10M), equivalent to an almost inconceivable ~$700 per kilogram of actual Starlink satellites launched. Assuming each Starlink satellite costs approximately $250k, it’s easy to believe that SpaceX is regularly launching 60 high-performance communications satellites for an all-in cost of just $25M-30M.

As an example of the impact of that extraordinary affordability, if SpaceX put the entirety of its latest $2B capital raise towards Starlink missions, it could likely complete 60-80 launches, placing some 3600-4800 new satellites in orbit. The entire first phase of SpaceX’s Starlink constellation – offering uninterrupted broadband internet anywhere on Earth – requires ~4400 satellites.

Coincidentally, Falcon 9 B1049 – the first booster to launch and land six times – was spotted just outside SpaceX’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) LC-39A launch facilities the day (Oct 17) before B1051 lifted off from the same pad. The booster appears to be more or less waiting for its next flight, implying that all post-flight processing has already been completed since its last launch on August 18th.

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SpaceX Falcon 9 booster and first thrice-flown fairing return to port [photos]

In a period of just 12 hours last Friday, SpaceX successfully returned Falcon 9 booster B1058 and two payload fairing halves to Port Canaveral and a photographer-laden helicopter was airborne to capture it.

With its safe return to dry land, fairing recovery ship GO Ms. Tree’s bullseye catch of an already twice-flown fairing all but guarantees that the record-breaking payload fairing will have a chance to launch a fourth time in the near future. Meanwhile, Falcon 9 booster B1058 – the first US-built rocket to launch US astronauts since June 2011 – will soon be well on its way to its own fourth flight, likely for one of several dozen Starlink missions SpaceX aims to launch in the next ~15 months.

Aside from placing what CEO Elon Musk says is the last batch of satellites needed to kick off the Starlink internet network’s first public beta tests, the Starlink-12 mission was SpaceX’s 17th this year, leaving the company on track to beat its annual launch record by at least a small margin.

Falcon 9 booster B1058, drone ship OCISLY, and fairing catcher Ms. Tree return to Port Canaveral as Blue Origin and ULA launch pads stand watch in the background. (Richard Angle)

If SpaceX continues to follow its 2020 average of one Falcon 9 launch ever ~16.4 days, the company will likely end the year with 22 missions under its belt, narrowly beating the 21 launches it completed in 2018. If it follows its launch average – ~12.8 days per launch – from just the last four or so months, however, SpaceX could crush its record with some 24 or 25 launches this year. Given recent disruptions from reliably bad weather and a rare last-second launch abort, which trajectory SpaceX will follow over the next ~12 weeks is entirely up in the air.

Starlink-12 marks the thirteenth such launch for SpaceX, adding to the 12 flights pictured here. (SpaceX/Richard Angle)

Regardless of the outcome, though, reusability will have played a foundational role to a degree thus far unprecedented. Barring a major surprise, SpaceX will end 2020 having launched just five new Falcon 9 boosters – three of which will likely launch within the last two months of the year.

For fairing recovery and reuse, 2020 has been an even more groundbreaking, seeing SpaceX (seemingly) begin to find steadier footing with increasingly consistent fairing catches. Impressively, in the measly 11 months since SpaceX first reused a Falcon fairing, nearly a third of all launches and almost half of all Starlink missions have flown with one or two flight-proven halves. Recently, Musk even revealed that SpaceX intends for fairings and boosters to be capable of at least 10 launches each, confirming that Starlink-12’s now thrice-flown fairing half is no fluke.

Ms. Tree seemingly took a victory lap to welcome Falcon 9 B1058 home and celebrate a successful fairing catch. (Richard Angle)
SpaceX had to call off Ms. Chief’s catch attempt but still fished the half (right) out of the water. The left half has now made it through three orbital launches, two splashdowns, and one catch. (Richard Angle)

Drone ship Of Course I Still Love You’s (OCISLY) successful Starlink-12 booster recovery ended an agonizing three weeks of back and forth as SpaceX was tugged in a circle by ULA’s launch priority, technical difficulties, and stormy summer weather. Originally meant to recover Falcon 9 booster B1058 as early as mid-September, the launch slowly slipped its way to October 6th. Beginning in late-September, drone ship Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) joined the fray for its role in SpaceX’s GPS III SV04 launch for the US military, a launch that would also find itself delayed several times.

Two seconds before liftoff, new Falcon 9 booster B1062 automatically aborted its October 2nd launch attempt due to bad pressure readings in at least one of its nine Merlin 1D engines. SpaceX has since taken the rocket horizontal and is likely swapping multiple engines, possibly necessitating a second static fire test before the next attempt sometime later this month. That abort has also delayed SpaceX’s second NASA astronaut launch (Crew-1) from Halloween to mid-November to ensure no commonality.

SpaceX has an absolutely jam-packed fourth quarter ahead of it, ranging from GPS III SV04 and Crew-1 to a Sirius XM radio satellite, a Turkish communications satellite, and the joint NASA/ESA/CNES Sentinel 6A oceanography spacecraft. Stay tuned for updates and spectacular new photos from the Teslarati team.

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SpaceX’s next Starlink launch to break Falcon 9 fairing reuse record

SpaceX has revealed that its next Starlink launch will mark a new first for Falcon 9 payload fairing reuse, reaching a milestone that took booster reuse 18 months in less than a year.

Scheduled to lift off no earlier than (NET) 2:19 pm EDT (18:19 UTC) on Thursday, September 17th, the Starlink-12 (v1.0 L12) mission will be SpaceX’s 11th in 2020 alone and 13th overall. If things go according to plan, it could leave SpaceX’s nascent constellation just two or so months away from the beginning of the first public beta tests of Starlink internet service.

Meanwhile, Falcon 9 booster B1058 will be attempting its third launch less than four months after its flight debut, an unprecedented cadence of reuse for SpaceX. Aside from likely ensuring that B1058 becomes the proud holder of SpaceX’s first and second place records for booster turnaround (time between launches), the mission also continues an unexpected trend: the near-extinction of Falcon 9 static fire tests.

Falcon 9 B1058 last launched on July 20th, representing a 59-day turnaround if SpaceX’s Starlink-12 schedule holds. (Richard Angle)

SpaceX’s first successful Falcon booster landing happened in December 2015, just a few months shy of five years ago. In March 2017, two years later, SpaceX reused a Falcon 9 booster on an orbital-class launch for the first time in history. Some 21 months after that historic milestone, SpaceX launched the same Falcon 9 booster for the third time, kicking off a relentless series of reusability firsts that continue to be made to this day.

Now, SpaceX says it’s about to launch the same Falcon 9 payload fairing half for the third time in a significant and unexpected first for fairing reuse. Constructed primarily out of a carbon fiber-aluminum honeycomb composite material, Falcon fairings are dramatically more fragile – and reaches much higher altitudes and velocities – than the boosters SpaceX has cut its teeth on recovering and reusing.

SpaceX’s most recent launch saw Falcon 9 booster B1048 suffer the rocket’s first in-flight engine failure since October 2012, followed by an unsuccessful recovery attempt. (Richard Angle)
Although SpaceX suffered an in-flight anomaly and lost a Falcon 9 booster, the company did manage to recover a reused payload fairing – pictured here – for the first time on March 18th. (Richard Angle)

Compared to booster reuse, it’s quite the achievement. SpaceX first managed to launch the same Falcon 9 booster three times in December 2018, ~33 months after the first booster reuse. Measured from SpaceX’s first fairing reuse, completed in November 2019 as part of the first Starlink v1.0 launch (Starlink-1), the company will have managed to cross the three-flight fairing reuse barrier less than 11 months later – a full three times faster than SpaceX’s booster reuse program took to achieve the same milestone.

It’s starting to look like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 prelaunch static fires have become an endangered species. (SpaceX)

No more static fires?

Meanwhile, SpaceX appears to be turning a major corner on Falcon 9 launch operations. Of all 93 Falcon 9 launches since the rocket’s June 2010 debut, every single one has been preceded by a combined wet dress rehearsal (WDR) and static fire test a few days or weeks prior to liftoff. Effectively simulating a launch 1:1 up to the exact moment before liftoff, SpaceX has used static fires to verify vehicle health and firewall minor quality assurance lapses for as long as it’s been launching rockets.

In a major operational change that has almost flown under the radar, SpaceX appears to have killed the practice of universal prelaunch static fires beginning with Starlink-8 in June 2020. Including Starlink-8, of the seven launches SpaceX has completed in the last three months, just three (GPS III SV03, Starlink-9, and Starlink-10) included Falcon 9 static fire tests prior to liftoff. A step further, two of the four static fire-free launches were for major commercial missions – not retiring risk on SpaceX’s own Starlink launches, in other words.

SpaceX static fired B1060 before its inaugural launch on June 30th. (Richard Angle)
Falcon 9 B1051 was static-fired before Starlink-9, its fifth launch. (Richard Angle)
Finally, Falcon 9 B1049 was static-fired before its sixth launch. (Richard Angle)

As of today, Falcon 9 has completed 65 successful launches since the last catastrophic vehicle failure (Amos-6, September 2016) and 74 consecutively-successful launches if Amos-6 (which never lifted off) is excluded. As of 2020, it’s the most reliable US launch vehicle currently in operation, surpassing ULA’s Atlas V several months ago. In fewer words, it’s not actually surprising (in retrospect) that SpaceX has begun to relax its position on static fires – especially considering that there isn’t another launch provider on Earth that static fires rockets before every launch.

More likely than not, SpaceX will continue to static fire Falcon 9 and Heavy boosters at the launch pad before their flight debuts and upon customer request. If launch or post-flight inspection data offer reason(s) for concern, SpaceX may still choose to static fire boosters out of caution. Additionally, SpaceX shows no signs of ending the practice of performing full booster static fires in McGregor, Texas as part of acceptance testing, still leaving it a step beyond traditional rocket manufacturers, which only static fire individual engines.

Regardless, SpaceX’s 13th Starlink launch will be streamed live as usual, with coverage beginning around 15 minutes prior to liftoff.

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SpaceX makes rocket fairing catch look easy with “autopilot” recovery

SpaceX has made Falcon 9 rocket fairing recovery look easy in a video of the latest nosecone catch, published hours after the company’s successful Starlink-10 launch.

Posted on Twitter by Elon Musk not long after a SpaceX webcast host and engineer revealed that one of two fairing catch attempts had been successful, the video offers the best in-action view yet of an operational fairing recovery. Backed by elevator music, it also certainly carries a clear signature of the CEO’s humor, carrying the torch from previous hits like “How Not to Land an Orbital Rocket Booster“, “Grasshopper vs. Cows“, and the successful launch of a Tesla Roadster and spacesuit-wearing mannequin into interplanetary space.

Lackadaisical theme song aside, Musk also shed some light on the actual process of catching Falcon fairings with giant ships and nets. Those new details point towards a major improvement made in the last six or so months that’s helped enable an unprecedented three successful fairing catches in less than 30 days.

(Richard Angle)
Falcon 9 B1049 lifts off for the sixth time with a flight-proven payload fairing. (Richard Angle)
SpaceX may have gotten statistically lucky but the company certainly made fairing catches look easy on Tuesday, August 18th. (SpaceX)

According to Musk, SpaceX caught the Starlink-10 fairing half with both recovery ship GO Ms. Tree and the parasailing fairing half “operating on (SpaceX) autopilot.” While his comments leave a great deal of room for interpretation, they seem to imply that SpaceX has found ways to make fairing recovery almost as automatic as Falcon booster landings. During Falcon first stage recovery, the booster and drone ship technically operate as if the other doesn’t exist – the ship simply station keeps in a very specific location and the booster targets that same specific location.

Fairing recovery, as SpaceX would quickly find out, was a dramatically more complex and touchy ballet of humans, machinery, and rocket parts. Little is known about the specifics of fairing recovery beyond the fact that fairing halves have cold gas thrusters for positioning in vacuum and use GPS-guided parafoils to travel towards a rough landing zone. For most prior attempts, it’s believed that one or several crew members were responsible for manually maneuvering the recovery ship during catch attempts.

(Richard Angle)
The Starlink-10 payload fairing flew once before in January 2020 on Starlink-3. (Richard Angle)
A twice-flown Falcon 9 fairing half is recovered again after SpaceX’s Starlink-10 launch. (SpaceX)

Including controlled helicopter drop tests, SpaceX failed a dozen or more consecutive fairing catch attempts and even shipped the entire operation from California to Florida before the first successful catch finally came in June 2019. In an apparent fluke, SpaceX managed to catch another fairing half less than two months later. Five months later, SpaceX secured its third fairing catch – possibly the very same fairing half caught on Monday. Another six months after #3, SpaceX hit a major milestone, simultaneously catching both halves of a Falcon fairing with two separate ships on July 21st, 2020.

Two fairing catches, one launch. (SpaceX)

Now, just 29 days after that spectacular double catch, SpaceX has caught another Falcon 9 fairing half – tempered only by the fact that sister ship Ms. Chief missed her own catch attempt. While it could certainly be a fluke of luck akin to SpaceX’s back-to-back STP-2 and Amos-17 catches, Musk’s note that “fairing chute control & ship control are closing the loop locally” points to cautious optimism.

Cryptic as ever, the comment seems to imply that SpaceX has debuted – or at least recently introduced – a kind of cooperative, autonomous navigation system that allows Falcon fairings and their recovery ships to communicate and function as a unit. For now, we’ll have to wait for the next catch attempt to get a better idea of just how much of a step forward SpaceX has made. SAOCOM 1B, SpaceX’s next Falcon 9 fairing recovery (and launch), is currently scheduled no earlier than (NET) August 27th.

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SpaceX rocket nosecone catch years in the making caught on camera

In a milestone more than three years in the making, SpaceX has successfully caught both halves of a Falcon 9 rocket’s payload fairing (i.e. nosecone) and shared videos of the historic feat.

Meanwhile, twin ships GO Ms. Tree and GO Ms. Chief returned to Port Canaveral before dawn on July 22nd with their trophies safely in hand. After years of development, at least a dozen failed catch attempts, numerous soft ocean landings, and the introduction of a second identical recovery ship, SpaceX has finally proven that a full rocket fairing can be recovered for (relatively) easy reuse.

Ironically, just eight months ago, SpaceX reused an orbital-class payload fairing for the first time, proving that fairings can be recovered and reused even if they fail to land in a recovery ship’s net. As such, the milestone is slightly less monumental than it otherwise could have been – but that’s not a bad thing, in this case. Most importantly, the successful catch of both halves of a Falcon fairing serves as a reminder of SpaceX’s extraordinary tenacity in the face of repeated failures and the reality that – given enough time and resources – the company almost invariably achieves its goals.

Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief returned to port on July 22nd after an unprecedented double fairing catch. (Richard Angle)

In the scope of orbital-class rocket recovery and reusability, payload fairings – nosecones that protect payloads from the atmosphere and environment and deploy several minutes after launch – rarely register. Relative to launch vehicle stages, the fairing typically represents a small fraction of the overall rocket’s cost. However, when built almost entirely out of carbon fiber composites to save as much weight as possible, they can require an outsized amount of labor and production time. At the same time, for a company like SpaceX that has already effectively solved the problem of routine booster recovery and reuse, a part that may have once represented a small fraction of launch costs can quickly become a major portion.

For Falcon 9, with the booster representing something like 65% of the rocket’s material cost, the payload fairing’s share of overall launch cost with a reused booster can quickly balloon from 10% to ~30%. Of course, those savings really only register from an internal perspective, which is precisely way SpaceX has continued to invest in fairing reuse after years with minimal success. Cutting ~30% off the material cost of the dozens to hundreds of Starlink launches planned over the next several years could easily save SpaceX hundreds of millions of dollars.

The lucky Falcon 9 fairing in question. (Richard Angle)
(Richard Angle)
(Richard Angle)

As such, SpaceX continues to reap the benefits of a healthy, industry-leading commercial launch business, more or less allowing it to pay for the production of rockets and facilities by launching a few commercial missions before moving on to many, many more Starlink launches. Up to now, only Falcon boosters have been able to take advantage of that unique opportunity, but SpaceX has very recently begun to reuse payload fairings – also frequently debuting on commercial missions. As of July 23rd, SpaceX has reused Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy fairings three times, all on Starlink satellite launches.

On July 20th, Falcon 9 booster B1058 lifted off for the second time after a record-breaking turnaround, carrying South Korea’s ANASIS II military communications satellite and a fresh payload fairing atop a new upper stage. Simultaneously breaking a drought of fairing catches, GO Ms. Tree and GO Ms. Chief successfully caught both halves of said payload fairing in their respective nets for the first time ever. Protected from saltwater immersion that can easily corrode the aluminum both inside and outside the fairings, the successful catch all but guarantees that SpaceX will be able to quickly and easily reuse this fairing on a future Starlink mission.

Two simultaneously successful catches after 12 attempts – three successful – in ~30 months is either an extraordinary fluke or a sign that SpaceX may have solved fairing recovery after years of hard work and iterative improvement. SpaceX’s next firm launch is scheduled no earlier than July 30th and another Starlink mission could potentially happen between now and then, so the company should have several attempts to test its fairing recovery luck in the near future.

Ms. Tree (formerly Mr. Steven) snagged one half of ANASIS II fairing 38 minutes after liftoff. (SpaceX)
Ms. Chief followed suit with her own catch almost exactly three minutes later. (SpaceX)

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SpaceX nails second Falcon nosecone recovery in one month

SpaceX has successfully recovered two pairs of Falcon 9 payload fairings (nosecones) – one twice-flown – in one month after twin ships GO Ms. Tree and GO Ms. Chief returned to port on July 2nd.

Around 45 minutes after Falcon 9 B1060 lifted off for the first time with the US military’s third upgraded GPS III satellite in tow and around 40 minutes after the rocket’s payload fairing deployed, both fairing halves gently splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean just a few miles apart. Lacking their main recovery nets in an odd configuration, Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief both fished one half out of the ocean with smaller secondary nets before placing the fairings on their decks for technicians to secure them.

A little more than two weeks prior, both ships were in the midst of recovering the Starlink-8 mission’s twice-flown fairings from the ocean, safely returning them – intact – to shore for the first time since SpaceX began fairing reuse. As SpaceX itself noted at the tail end of its GPS III SV03 webcast, the intact recovery of the mission’s fairing halves all but guarantees that they’ll be reused in the near future.

SpaceX’s twin fairing recovery ships have each returned to port with an intact fairing half safely secured. A similar return is pictured here in December 2019. (Richard Angle)

Based on three prior fairing reuses in November 2019, March 2020, and June 2020, SpaceX could turn around the GPS III SV03 pair for a second launch just a few months from now. Like Falcon 9 booster reuse, though, it’s likely that SpaceX will gradually gain experience and data that will allow them to both reuse fairings more quickly and fly them three times or more.

SpaceX’s first successful recovery of a twice-flown fairing last month also means that the company may also be just a few months away from flying a payload fairing three times – for the first time. SpaceX has yet to confirm whether Falcon 9’s existing payload fairing design allows for more than two reuses, although it seems like a safe bet given that the company’s upgraded “Fairing 2.0” debuted just a few months before Falcon 9 Block 5 – heavily optimized to allow for 10+ flights per booster.

In response to a Teslarati article discussing the first opportunity to reuse a Falcon fairing twice, CEO Elon Musk noted that “fairing reuse is looking good”, perhaps confirming that SpaceX will indeed attempt to reuse the Starlink-8 fairing. Regardless, with multiple recovered fairings now in flow, SpaceX’s fairing reuse program is rapidly starting to illustrate its value after nearly years of concerted effort and investment.

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SpaceX’s next rocket fairing reuse milestone within reach after first intact recovery

SpaceX’s next major Falcon 9 fairing reuse milestone is now within reach after the company managed to successfully recover an entire reused nosecone with both halves intact.

On June 13th, a flight-proven Falcon 9 rocket lifted off on the seventh Starlink mission of 2020 and ninth launch overall, also marking SpaceX’s third reuse of a payload fairing since the first flight-proven nosecone flew in November 2019. As usual, Falcon 9’s upper stage commanded fairing deployment around three minutes after launch, leaving the house-sized shells to coast to an apogee of ~150 km (~93 mi) before falling back down to Earth. Once safely through reentry, both halves deployed GPS-guided parafoils and flew in the direction of two recovery ships, gliding for more than half an hour.

Unfortunately, although they likely got close, recovery ships GO Ms Tree and Ms Chief were unable to catch the parasailing fairings in their football field-size nets, leaving them to gently splash down in the Atlantic Ocean. Technicians were able to fish them out of the water with smaller onboard nets soon after and the ships sailed into port less than 36 hours later.

Preventing a vast majority of seawater exposure, a catch with Ms. Tree or Ms. Chief may always be preferable for fairing reuse but the fact remains that all three successful reuses up to this point have been achieved with fairing halves that landed in the ocean. That success means that SpaceX has found a way to fully prevent or mitigate any potential corrosion that might result from seawater immersion. Given that that problem must have been a showstopper for the ~2.5 years SpaceX was able to recover – but not reuse – intact fairings, it’s safe to say that the company’s engineers have more or less solved the problem of corrosion.

This appears to be the half of the JCSAT-18/Kacific-1 Falcon fairing that SpaceX didn’t reuse on Starlink V1 L8. (Richard Angle)
Other post-splashdown fairing recovery attempts have been decidedly less successful. (Richard Angle)

In fewer words, although there has yet to be any official confirmation that Falcon 9 fairings are capable of flying more than twice, there’s good reason to believe that the design upgrade that enabled one reuse had some built-in headroom. If that’s true, then one or both of the twice-flown fairing halves that safely returned to dry land on June 14th could fly for the third time just a few months from now – less than a year after the first reuse. For reference, it took SpaceX some ~33 months to go from the first reuse of a Falcon 9 first stage to the second reuse (third flight) of a single booster.

With as many as 13-17 more Starlink launches still on SpaceX’s 2020 manifest, there will be no shortage of opportunities for such a fairing reuse milestone – if possible – over the next six months. SpaceX’s next Starlink launch – the third launch in June alone and tenth mission overall – is scheduled no earlier than (NET) 6:20 pm EDT (22:20 UTC), June 22nd.

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SpaceX shares rare view of Starlink satellites rocketing into space

SpaceX has shared a rare view of its latest batch of 60 Starlink internet satellites rocketing into space atop a Falcon 9 rocket, made possible by the partial recovery of the mission’s payload fairings last week.

Effectively a giant carbon-fiber composite nosecone designed to protect satellite payloads from atmospheric buffeting and heating during the first several minutes of launch, SpaceX has been working to perfect payload fairing recovery for several years. This is the fourth video from inside a deployed Falcon payload fairing since that work began, footage that is only possible when one or both of those fairing halves can be recovered more or less intact.

Thankfully, although SpaceX was unable to catch Starlink V1 L7’s Falcon fairing halves with giant nets installed on recovery ships GO Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief, both ships were still able to lift their respective halves out of the Atlantic Ocean and onto their decks. One half was unfortunately damaged on impact or during the struggle to get it out of the ocean but the other half appears to be fully intact, meaning that at least half of the new Starlink fairing may be able to fly again in the coming months.

Stacked on top of a new upper stage and Falcon 9 booster B1049, the fairing pictured here is the same one seen deploying in the video above. (Richard Angle)

Thanks to the black background of orbital night and the comparatively slow acceleration of Falcon 9’s upper stage past its deployed payload fairing halves, this latest video offers perhaps the best overview yet of the dynamic and unforgiving environment fairings are subjected to during launch. Notably, the superheated hypersonic exhaust of Falcon 9’s Merlin Vacuum (MVac) upper stage engine can be seen impacting both deployed fairing halves as soon as the rocket accelerates away, producing an ethereal glow indicative of the heating and buffeting fairings are subjected to.

A view inside the fairing shortly before deployment. (SpaceX)
Earth’s limb reflects off of the shiny exterior of 60 stacked Starlink satellites. (SpaceX)
The glow on the rear of the Starlink fairing half is actually the result of Falcon 9’s hypersonic upper stage engine exhaust impinging as both halves fall through the plume. (SpaceX)
Mysterious streaks – probably also related to Falcon 9’s upper stage rocket exhaust – and the tail end of the plume appear a few seconds later as direct impingement fades away. (SpaceX)

Taken from Falcon Heavy’s third launch, another video published about a year ago also illustrates how extreme that environment is during atmospheric reentry. While their low mass and large surface areas mean that their return to Earth is quite gentle and requires little to no dedicated heat shielding, fairing halves still reach apogees of ~125+ km (80+ mi) and reenter the atmosphere traveling at least 2.5-3 km/s (1.5+ mi/s). As a result, fairing reentries still produce spectacular streaks of plasma as they compress the thickening atmosphere into superheated gas.

SpaceX’s first successful Falcon fairing catch was preceded by a spectacular light show as the fairing reentered Earth’s atmosphere at hypersonic velocities. (SpaceX/Teslarati)

Another video taken from Falcon Heavy’s second launch a few months prior offered a different glimpse of fairing separation in daylight, highlighting Falcon 9’s second stage and massive Merlin Vacuum engine – often falling under the radar due to the public’s understandable focus on booster landings.

A daytime view of a Falcon fairing deployment in April 2019. (SpaceX)

All of the above videos were made possible because SpaceX has – for the most part – perfected the art of gently landing fairing halves on the ocean surface with GPS-guided parafoils. Likely filmed with GoPros, SpaceX has to be able to recover the memory card inside the camera to publish uninterrupted views from inside fairings. While SpaceX still has a ways to go to close the loop and reliably catch those gliding fairing halves in the nets of its dedicated recovery ships, the company clearly has no intention of giving up any time soon.

SpaceX’s next Starlink launch (and fairing recovery attempt) is scheduled no earlier than (NET) 5:42 am EDT (09:42 UTC), June 12th.

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