Let’s spare a moment of thought for B1049, a Falcon 9 first-stage booster that made its debut in September 2018 by launching the Telstar 18V commercial mission. Then, in January 2019, the core launched another commercial mission, sending a passel of Iridium satellites into space.
Both were successes. Since then the first stage has lofted three different Starlink missions into low-Earth orbit as SpaceX seeks to build out a constellation of satellites to provide broadband Internet from space.
The Starlink platform may eventually turn into a very profitable business for SpaceX, although there remains a lot of work to do in regard to ground stations to receive signals, compliances with regulations, and more. But what is unquestionable is that launching Starlink missions has allowed SpaceX to push the boundaries of reuse with its Falcon 9 rocket.
The company has flown no commercial satellites as primary payloads on rockets beyond their third flight—risking its own Starlink satellites on the fourth and fifth flights of several Falcon 9 first stages. And it’s worth noting that every Starlink mission has been a success in terms of getting its satellites into orbit.
There have been some lessons learned along the way. In March, on its fifth flight, a Falcon 9 first stage suffered an early engine shutdown on the way to orbit that precluded a successful landing of the first stage. This was later traced to a problematic chemical used during the process of cleaning the engines between flights.
These are the kinds of things that engineers are learning about the Falcon 9 rocket as they push deeper into unknown territory. Will other aging problems crop up as boosters fly more missions? We may find out today as B1049 becomes the first stage to attempt six flights into orbit. This mission will carry 58 Starlink satellites and three SkySats for Planet.
A webcast for the launch should begin about 15 minutes before the launch time of 10:31 am ET (14:31 UTC).
Listing image by Trevor Mahlmann