It was a rare miss for SpaceX’s rocket landings.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched a new batch of 60 Starlink internet satellites into orbit late Monday (Feb. 15), but failed to stick its landing on a floating platform at sea.
The two-stage Falcon 9 booster, topped with the 60 broadband spacecraft, lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 here at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 10:59 p.m. EST (0359 GMT on Feb. 16). Approximately nine minutes later, the rocket’s first stage returned to Earth to attempt its sixth landing on SpaceX’s drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” in the Atlantic Ocean,” but missed its target.
“It does look like we did not land our booster on Of Course I Still Love You tonight,” SpaceX manufacturing engineer Jessica Anderson said during live launch commentary. “It is unfortunate that we did not recover this booster but our second stage is still on a nominal trajectory.”
SpaceX prefers to recover its Falcon 9 rocket stages for reuse, but the company has also said repeatedly that delivering a flight’s payload to orbit is always the primary mission.
One of SpaceX’s frequent fliers powered this latest Starlink mission into orbit. The booster, dubbed B1059, previously ferried two different SpaceX Dragon cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station — CRS-19 in Dec. 2019 and CRS-20 in March of 2020 — a Starlink mission last June, an Earth-observing satellite for Argentina (SAOCOM-1B in August 2020), and a spy satellite for the U.S government as part of the NROL-108 mission in December.
Tonight’s launch was the first of two planned Starlink liftoffs within a week; another 60 satellites are scheduled to take flight early as Wednesday (Feb. 17) on a different Falcon 9. The quick succession is due to the fact that SpaceX recently had to shuffle around its planned Starlink missions as both weather and hardware-related issues presented a bit of a challenge.
This mission, dubbed Starlink 19, moved forward after SpaceX’s 18th Starlink mission blasted off on Feb. 4. Both flights leapfrogged Starlink 17, which was originally slated to launch on Feb. 1. Scheduled to fly on one of SpaceX’s two record-setting frequent fliers, B1049, the mission was delayed several times and is now expected to blast off just after midnight on Feb. 17.
During the initial mission planning, SpaceX targeted launching two Starlink missions just hours apart — a first for the space coast since 1966 when a Gemini rocket was followed by an Atlas Agena just 99 minutes later. Ultimately the dual missions did not happen, but in an unprecedented move for the era of commercial spaceflight, the Eastern Range (the agency that oversees launches along the East Coast) approved two missions to launch in quick succession.
This is a feat we may see happen at a later date, especially as more launch providers become active and more and more launches blast off from Florida. Last year, there were a record 31 launches for the year, and 2021 could be even busier as the 45th Space Wing is preparing for at least 40 missions.