SpaceX is launching another batch of 60 Starlink satellites to join its existing constellation, which will bring the total to 300 and be the third Starlink launch this year. The launch will also be a potentially record-setting demonstration of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 reusability, with the shortest turnaround time for a Falcon 9 first-stage between its previous mission and its next.
The Falcon 9 booster being used today has already flown three times, including in May, July and December of 2019. That December flight, which happened on December 16, was only 63 days before today’s launch — the quickest turnaround to date for a Falcon 9 after flying was 72 days. SpaceX is using a newer iteration of its rocket that it first introduced in 2018, which is designed to increase its reusability further still compared to earlier versions.
SpaceX can clearly turn these around pretty quickly now and is probably more bound by mission cadence than other factors — this mission was originally set to fly on February 13, but was delayed twice until today.
In addition to the launch, which will also look to deploy the Starlink satellites much earlier than in prior launches of the satellites (at around 15 minutes after launch), SpaceX will be looking to recover both the booster and the fairing halves that protect the satellite cargo prior to their release in space. The Falcon 9 booster will return for a landing on SpaceX’s “Of Course I Still Love You” mobile automated seafaring landing pad, while its “Ms. Tree” and “Ms. Chief” ships will try to catch the fairings, as they descend via parachute, using giant nets suspended above their hulls.
SpaceX has pretty much perfected its booster landing process, but the fairing catch is still very much in the refinement stage. During the last SpaceX Starlink launch, the company caught one half of the protective covers, but not the other, bringing its total successful recoveries to a count of three. It has attempted 12 catches so far, and has also recovered fairings by retrieving them intact from the ocean after a water landing, although that process is more difficult and costly, so it’s really hoping to improve the success rate of the net-based catches.
Later this year, SpaceX intends to turn Starlink on, with the constellation then providing broadband internet connectivity to customers in the U.S. and Canada, with a global rollout planned to follow after additional launches.
The broadcast of the launch today will begin roughly 15 minutes prior to liftoff. Liftoff is currently set for 10:05 AM EST (7:05 AM PST), and the live stream should kick off at around 9:50 AM EST (6:50 AM PST).