SpaceX may be about to take another step in its plan to reuse space rockets.
The company is expected to send up its 11th batch of Starlink satellites in mid-August, sending up 58 craft from Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The mission is also expected to send up three SkySat imagine satellites for Planet as part of a ride-sharing agreement, after the company previously hitched a ride in a Starlink mission in June. The extra satellites will be used to help bring SpaceX's high-speed, low-latency internet connectivity constellation to life.
But SpaceX's mission could be notable for its impressive use of rocket reusability. Eric Berger, senior space reporter at Ars Technica, claimed via Twitter last week that the mission could use a booster that has previously flown five times. This would be the sixth mission for booster B1049, the first time SpaceX has flown the same first-stage rocket that many times.
As Twitter user Simon Merton noted in response, this could be SpaceX's 100th mission. The website SpaceXStats notes that the company has launched 99 missions. Of those, five were with the Falcon 1 rocket, 91 with the Falcon 9 rocket, and three with the Falcon Heavy. SpaceX's first successful launch, and fourth launch overall, was in 2008.
Reusing rockets forms part of its mission to make spaceflight more accessible for all. Landing a booster after flight saves approximately $46.5 million of the $62 million price tag associated with a Falcon 9 launch. That means saving the booster enables SpaceX to reduce the costs of spaceflights even further, which in turn can fund more ambitious projects like a city on Mars.
This booster has flown on five previous missions:
- The Telstar 18 mission on September 10, 2018. The landing marked the first time one of SpaceX's drone ship, Of Course I Still Love You, successfully caught more than four boosters in one year.
- The Iridium-8 mission on January 11, 2019. This marked the end of a two-year, $3 billion project to upgrade the Iridium constellation with 75 satellites. The landing was also the first successful one of 2019.
- The first Starlink mission on May 24, 2019. This mission sent up the first batch of 60 Starlink satellites.
- The third batch of 60 Starlink satellites on January 6, 2020.
- The eighth batch of satellites on June 3, 2020. The landing after this mission also marked the first time SpaceX had flown and landed the same booster five times.
The record will come at a major time for the company. This is also the same month that the SpaceX Crew Dragon returned to Earth with humans for the first time. It was also the first time one of its prototype Starship rockets had flown, the under-development ship designed to take humans to Mars and beyond. CNBC reported last week that SpaceX employees got Friday off in recognition of their recent achievements.
The Inverse analysis – If SpaceX can beat this next milestone, it will further confirm its ability to push rocket reusability even further. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that it was only last month that SpaceX set a record with the same booster.
There is still a long way to go. SpaceX is still aiming to speed up its reuse times, with a long-term goal of a 24-hour turnaround. The current record stands at 51 days. The breakthrough that could help SpaceX achieve this goal may be Starship, which is aiming for full reusability as part of its design and the ability for one ship to support 1,000 missions per year. There could be much more to come.