CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX will launch one of its rockets for a record 10th time Sunday (May 9), with a very sooty Falcon 9 rocket lofting a new fleet of Starlink satellites into space before dawn, and you can watch it live online.
The Hawthorne, California-based company will launch 60 Starlink satellites on one of its fleet leaders, a flight-proven Falcon 9 rocket dubbed B1051. The frequent flier will blast off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station here in Florida at 2:42 a.m. EDT (0642 GMT).
Sunday’s flight, called Starlink 26, is the 14th mission so far for SpaceX in 2021 — all of which have flown on a reused booster. It’s also the second Starlink mission to launch in a week, as SpaceX’s last mission blasted off on Tuesday (May 4).
When SpaceX debuted the souped-up version of its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket in 2018, the company said that each launcher would be capable of flying at least 10 times with minimal refurbishment in between launches, and 100 times total. The rocket used in this mission will be the first to reach that milestone.
Those numbers may be more of an estimate rather than a hard limit. SpaceX has learned a lot about the refurbishment process, and the company’s CEO and founder, Elon Musk, says that SpaceX will continue to push Falcon 9 to the limit as it works to expand its Starlink mega constellation.
SpaceX created Starlink in hopes of providing high-speed internet access to users around the world, and as a means to help fund its Mars ambitions. The service is targeted to users in rural or remote areas that have little-to-no connectivity, although anyone can use it.
To date, the company has launched more than 1,500 of the flat-paneled satellites into space. SpaceX estimated it would need at least 1,440 satellites in its initial constellation to begin to roll out commercial service.
The company has been extensively testing its burgeoning internet service as part of a global beta-testing program, which began last fall with its own employees. The program, called “Better than nothing beta” has since expanded to the public, including users in other countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.
Prospective users can pay a small deposit sign up for the service now, via the company’s website. However, it could be a few months before the actual service becomes available.
During its last mission on May 4, SpaceX’s Siva Bharadvaj reported that 500,000 have signed up for the service so far. “To date, over half a million people have placed an order or put down a deposit for Starlink,” he said. “With every launch, we get closer to connecting more people across the world.”
Sunday’s launch marks the 118th flight overall for SpaceX’s 229-foot-tall (70 meters) Falcon 9 booster. The star of the mission is one of SpaceX’s flight leaders: a nine-time veteran Falcon 9 first stage, designated B1051. This frequent flyer made its debut in 2019 when it launched an uncrewed Crew Dragon capsule on the Demo-1 mission as part of a test flight for NASA’s Commercial Crew program.
The booster then trekked across the country to launch a trio of Earth-observing satellites for Canada, touching down on terra firma at the company’s California-based landing pad. The Falcon 9 stage then switched to Starlink duty, ferrying a trio of different Starlink payloads followed by a broadband satellite for Sirius-XM. Another three Starlink missions followed.
Now back on Starlink duty, B1051 is about to launch its 4th Starlink mission in a row. The veteran is one of the oldest boosters in SpaceX’s fleet and is the first to attempt a 10th launch and landing.
If all goes as planned, B1051 will blast off early on Sunday morning and approximately 9 minutes later, will touch down on one of SpaceX’s two drone ships — “Just Read the Instructions.” If successful, it will mark the 85th recovery of a first stage booster since the company landed its first one in December 2015.
The weather outlook looks good for Sunday’s early morning liftoff, with forecasters at the 45th Weather Squadron predicting an 80% chance of favorable launch conditions. The only issue of concern is the potential for cumulus clouds. Officials also say that sea states at the recovery zone look good.
There is a backup day if necessary on Monday (May 10), with weather conditions deteriorating slightly.
SpaceX will continue its tradition of recovering the Falcon 9’s payload fairing, or nose cone, on today’s mission, scooping up the fairings after they fall back to Earth in two pieces. Both pieces were previously used in November 2020 to launch an upgraded GPS III satellite for the U.S. Space Force.
Following Sunday’s launch, one of SpaceX’s recovery vessels — the Shelia Bordelon — and its onboard crane will fetch the pieces from the ocean and bring them back to port. Assuming they land intact, the fairing halves will fly again soon.
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