December 15, 2019

SpaceX to reuse payload fairing for first time on Nov. 11 launch


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SpaceX retrieved two halves of the payload fairing from a Falcon Heavy launch April 11 . Credit: Elon Musk/SpaceX

A SpaceX launch set for Nov. 11 will mark the first Falcon 9 mission to use a payload fairing from a previous flight, the company announced Tuesday, shortly after SpaceX engineers at Cape Canaveral test-fired the mission’s first stage booster, also refurbished and reused.

The Falcon 9 launch scheduled for next Monday — and previously planned for October — will loft 60 satellites for SpaceX’s Starlink broadband network, joining 60 other test craft deployed on a Falcon 9 flight in May.

The launch window opens at 9:51 a.m. EST (1451 GMT) Monday and extends for approximately 11 minutes. It will be SpaceX’s first launch since Aug. 6, and the first ground-based launch from Cape Canaveral since Aug. 22.

The U.S. Air Force-run Eastern Range at Cape Canaveral supported the Oct. 10 launch of an air-dropped Pegasus XL rocket over the Atlantic Ocean east of Florida.

SpaceX has not said what caused the delay in the Starlink mission from October to Nov. 11.

SpaceX test-fired the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage booster at 12:30 p.m. EST (1730 GMT) Tuesday at Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch pad. The Falcon 9’s nine Merlin 1D first stage engines fired for several seconds, throttling up to produce 1.7 million pounds of thrust while hold-down restraints kept the rocket firmly on the ground.

The commercial launch provider confirmed in a tweet that the Falcon 9 rocket is on track for a Nov. 11 launch with the next 60 Starlink broadband satellites. SpaceX also announced the mission would be the first to fly with a reused payload shroud, which shields sensitive satellite payloads during the first few minutes of flight through the thick lower atmosphere.

Last month, a senior SpaceX official said the Starlink flight would be the company’s first mission to fly a Falcon 9 first stage booster for a fourth launch.

The Falcon 9 rocket fires its engines during a static fire test Tuesday, Nov. 5. Credit: Spaceflight Now

SpaceX said the fairing on next week’s launch first flew April 11 on the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket. The Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy use the same type of clamshell-like composite payload shroud, composed of two pieces and measuring 43 feet (13.1 meters) tall and 17 feet (5.2 meters) wide.

The fairing jettisons from the rocket a few minutes after liftoff. Each half of the fairing is fitted with avionics, thrusters and steerable parachutes to make a soft landing. The company wants to reuse the fairing, eyeing it as the next step in reducing launch costs after proving the landing and reuse of Falcon booster stages.

Other launch providers dispose of the fairing, but SpaceX has sought for several years to retrieve the components for refurbishment and reuse.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, told reporters last year that the fairing costs around $6 million.

The two fairing halves from the Arabsat 6A mission gently fell into the Atlantic under their parachutes, where recovery vessels retrieved the structures. SpaceX’s tweet suggested both halves of the fairing will be re-flown on the Starlink launch. A company spokesperson did not respond to a request to clarify.

SpaceX successfully caught a fairing with a net for the first time after a Falcon Heavy launch in June. The giant net is carried aboard a recovery vessel named “Ms. Tree.” SpaceX has since outfitted a second boat, named “Ms. Chief,” for fairing recovery missions, and the company could attempt to catch both fairing halves with the two vessels after the Starlink launch next week.

SpaceX has modified the architecture for its Starlink network, which aims to provide global broadband Internet service, since launching the first 60 Starlink satellites in May.

The Federal Communications Commission submitted documents to the ITU on Oct. 7 outlining SpaceX’s ambition to operate the 30,000 additional Starlink satellites, beyond the 12,000 already authorized by the FCC.

Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, said in September that the company plans as many as 24 Starlink launches next year.

Each Starlink satellite weighs about 500 pounds, or 227 kilograms. The satellites launched in May each carried a krypton ion propulsion system and Ku-band antennas for high-speed communication links.

SpaceX is in competition with other planned satellite “mega-constellations” targeting the broadband market, such as OneWeb and Amazon’s Kuiper network.

The initial set of Starlink satellites will fly in 341-mile-high (550-kilometer) orbits inclined 53 degrees to the equator. In August, SpaceX requested approval from the Federal Communications Commission to fly up to 1,584 Starlink satellites in 72 different orbital pathways, a change from the the commission’s earlier authorization for SpaceX to operate the same number of spacecraft in 24 planes.

SpaceX says the realignment will allow the Starlink network to begin providing broadband services to parts of the United States with fewer satellites and launches than previously planned. The Starlink fleet could offer service to the northern United States, Canada and locations at similar latitudes as soon as next year, the company said.

The Starlink network could provide coverage over all populated areas after 24 launches, SpaceX said.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.


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