SpaceX launched a constellation of Starlink satellites on May 9 on a Falcon 9 whose first stage was flying for the tenth time, a long-awaited milestone in the company’s reusability efforts. At 2:42 a.m. Eastern, the Falcon 9 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. After nearly 65 minutes, the rocket’s upper stage released its payload of 60 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit.
SpaceX’s third launch in less than two weeks brings the total number of Starlink satellites in orbit to more than 1,550. As the constellation grows, the company is gradually expanding its beta test program for broadband internet service. SpaceX stated that it opened up the beta test program last week to Austria and France on the launch webcast.
The launch itself was significant because it was the first time a Falcon 9 first stage had flown ten times.
In March 2019, the booster launched the Demo-1 commercial crew test flight for the first time. Before this launch, it had previously launched the Radarsat Constellation Mission, the SiriusXM SXM-7 satellite, and six Starlink missions.
SpaceX had long set a goal of 10 flights for Falcon 9 reuse to justify the company’s significant investment in reusability. However, company executives have suggested that the booster could fly more than ten times in recent months. “There doesn’t seem to be any obvious limit to the vehicle’s reusability,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said at a NASA press conference following the Crew-2 launch on April 23.
The company has been pushing the boundaries of booster reuse with its Starlink missions. This has revealed flaws, such as a February launch in which the Starlink payload arrived in orbit, but the booster failed to land. This was the booster’s sixth flight, but some engine components, such as “boots” or covers around the engines, were life leaders.
One of those covers had a hole in it, allowing hot gas from the engine exhaust to enter other parts of the engine and cause a shutdown, preventing the stage from landing.
“We do intend to fly the Falcon 9 booster until we see some failure with the Starlink missions, have that be a life-leader,” Musk said at the briefing, noting that the tenth booster flight was approaching at the time. “We’re finding out a lot about reusability. It’s a difficult problem for rockets.”
SpaceX has not said whether it will attempt the eleventh launch with this booster, but the successful landing keeps that possibility alive. “This booster comes back to life,” Michael Andrews, the host of SpaceX’s launch webcast, said shortly after the landing.