The veteran Falcon 9 rocket lifted off before dawn from Space Launch Complex 40 here at the Cape Canaveral Space Station at 2:42 a.m. EDT (6:42 a.m. GMT), marking the company’s 14th launch of the year. It was also one of the record books as the flight was the 10th attempt to launch and land this particular thruster. The once pristine exterior of the rocket was nearly black, charred from its many trips to orbit and back.“For the first time, a Falcon rocket thruster will hit double digits in flight,” said Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX written on twitter Saturday before launch.
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The successful liftoff marked the second time SpaceX launched one of its 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 rockets in the same week, each carrying a full stack of 60 flat-panel Starlink broadband satellites.
“SpaceX’s first reuse of an orbital-class rocket was on a SES-10 mission In March 2017, “Michael Andrews, Spacex Supply Chain Supervisor, said on a live webcast. We have certainly come a long way since then. “
About nine minutes after takeoff, the first stage of the rocket returned to Earth, landing on the SpaceX “Just Read the Instructions” drone for a record-breaking 10th successful landing.
Spectators were treated to quite a spectacle as the rocket lit the pre-dawn sky as it climbed into orbit. Clear skies over the Florida Space Coast afforded first-rate viewing conditions.
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In 2020, SpaceX launched a record 26 rockets and the company shows no signs of slowing down. So far this year, the Hawthorne, Calif.-Based rocket builder has launched 14 missions. Each of these launches were carried out on reused rockets, and most carried SpaceX’s own Starlink satellites.
Last month, SpaceX celebrated the launch of its third astronaut mission in less than a year, the private spaceflight company delivered a crew of four astronauts to the international space station. This mission, called Crew-2, was SpaceX’s first crewed mission to fly on a reused rocket.
Of its 14 missions this year, 11 put Starlink satellites into orbit. SpaceX has already filled its initial Internet constellation of 1,440 broadband satellites. However, the company has permission to launch thousands more and relies on its fleet of flight-proven thrusters to help it do just that.
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Reusable rocket milestone
The booster used at Sunday’s launch, called B1051, is one of the leaders in SpaceX’s fleet. The veteran pilot now has 10 launches and landings under his belt as the company plans to push its Falcon 9 rockets to the limit. It is the first booster in SpaceX’s fleet to reach this milestone. (Another booster, B1049, just launched its ninth mission earlier this week.)
This Falcon 9 debuted in 2019, launch of an unequipped Crew Dragon capsule on the Demo-1 mission as part of a test flight for the NASA Commercial Crew program. The booster also launched a trio of Earth observation satellites for Canada, a high-speed satellite for Sirius-XM and seven different Starlink missions.
SpaceX used its previously used thrusters with the most kilometers to transport its own satellites into space. This way, the company can push their fleet of Falcons to the limit while learning as much about the wear and tear that each vehicle experiences during launch.
This is the 118th flight in total for Falcon 9 and the 64th flight of a refurbished booster. In fact, every SpaceX launch so far in 2021 has been carried out on a rocket proven to fly.
In 2018, SpaceX launched the rocket we see today, a version of Falcon 9 known as Block 5. This more capable Falcon 9 ushered in an era of rapid reuse for the company, allowing SpaceX to launch more rockets than ever before.
Three years ago, CEO and founder of SpaceX Elon Musk told reporters the company expected each Falcon 9 to fly 10 times with little refurbishment between flights, and up to 100 times before retirement.
The B1051 is the first to reach the historic milestone of 10 flights and is expected to fly again, after its successful sea landing. According to Musk, there doesn’t appear to be a hard limit on how many times a booster can be reused, so the company will continue to push every Falcon to its limit.
Having a fleet of proven rockets in flight allows SpaceX to keep up with its rapid launch pace. However, SpaceX chooses to fly its own payload on boosters with a high number of flights, saving its new boosters for paying customers.
NASA and the US Space Force recently granted the company permission to fly their payloads on reused rockets, and we saw the first of those missions take off on April 23, with the launch of Crew-2. (SpaceX has flown other NASA missions on reused boosters, but the April flight marked the first time a human mission did so.)
To facilitate reuse, SpaceX equipped its Falcon 9 with some improvements that previous versions did not have, including a more robust thermal protection system, a more durable interstage (the part that connects the first stage of the rocket to the upper stage), titanium grille fins and more powerful motors. These key improvements, along with two drones on the same coast, have allowed SpaceX to launch and land more rockets.
The Starlink constellation is growing
SpaceX created its gigantic Internet constellation with one major goal: to provide Internet coverage around the world, especially in remote and rural areas. To this end, the company’s engineers have designed a fleet of flat-panel broadband satellites to fly over the Earth, broadcasting Internet coverage to users who can access the service through a compact user terminal.
With the success of Sunday’s launch, SpaceX has put more than 1,600 Starlink satellites into orbit, some of which are no longer operational. This goes beyond the company’s initial quota, which means we should see an official commercial rollout of the Starlink Internet service this year.
The company has already proven useful to those who live in remote areas. SpaceX connected school districts in Virginia and North Carolina that would otherwise have difficulty learning online, as well as the Hoh Tribe in Washington state and the Pikangikum Nation in western Ontario.
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Currently, Starlink is still in its beta testing phase with users around the world putting the service to the test. The company has also opened its website to start taking pre-orders, though service won’t start right away. Potential users can go to the company’s website and book the service with a $ 99 deposit now.
According to company officials, more than 500,000 users have so far signed up for the booming service.
Rocket fairing recovery
The two fairing halves featured in Tuesday’s mission will be retrieved by the latest member of SpaceX’s salvage fleet, Shelia Bordelon. The company officially said goodbye to their dynamic duo – GO Ms. Tree and GO Ms. Chief – last month. The two fairing sensors helped SpaceX kick off its fairing recovery efforts.
The rocket nose cone (also called a fairing) is a shell-shaped piece of hardware that protects the payload as the rocket passes through the atmosphere. Once it reaches a certain altitude, the pieces break off and fall back to Earth.
Historically, the material was thrown into the ocean, never to be used again. However, thanks to parachutes and on-board navigation software, SpaceX began salvaging the fairings, either catching them in a boat fitted with nets or retrieving them out of the water.
Using her on-board crane, the brightly colored Shelia Bordelon will retrieve the fairings from the water and bring them back to port. From there they will be refurbished and prepared for their next mission.
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