SpaceX has set a new record for the heaviest payload launched on a Falcon 9 rocket as part of the routine launch of the Starlink satellite.
At the same time, the rocket responsible for setting this new record launched a reusable booster that was last spotted cling to life – Engines badly damaged – on the deck of a SpaceX drone ship eight months ago. At the time, it wasn’t clear if the Falcon 9’s booster – theoretically capable of supporting at least 12-14 more launches – would be able to recover from damage and fly again.
It is now clear that the booster missile did not suffer significant unseen damage, which eventually allowed SpaceX to complete repairs and return the missile to service at the cost of a long delay.
According to spaceflight writer Alejandro Alcantella Romero,, one additional cost – minimum – was a full set of new Merlin 1D engines. Sometime shortly after the Falcon 9 B1069’s flawless launch and landing in December 2021, the robotic assistant known as the Octagrabber likely lost its grip on the booster while trying to secure it. Possibly already on the high seas, conditions prevented SpaceX workers from boarding the ship safely and manually securing the booster, which was then free to slide around its sloping deck.
Alternatively, it is possible that Octagrabber managed to secure the booster but then was exposed to truly horrific sea conditions. Designed to passively carry boosters onto the deck with its massive weight, even a tank-like robot wouldn’t be able to rescue the booster if a storm caught the drone ship and the waves were high enough.
Either way, the B1069 returned to port pressed to the edge of the drone ship, just read deck (JRTI), which was heavily tilted to port. Even worse, each of the Merlin 1D’s nine fragile engine nozzles squashed like tin against the Octagrabber, damaging them beyond repair. While there is a chance that SpaceX will or will be able to salvage the original M1D engine parts from the B1069 over the bell nozzles, it is no surprise that the company will have to completely replace these engines before the booster can fly again.
The damage done to the B1069 upon its first launch makes it all the more impressive that SpaceX attempted to break the Falcon 9 payload record as it returned to flight, indicating that the company was very confident in its repairs.
SpaceX confirmed that the record-breaking Falcon 9 by launching 54 Starlink V1.5 satellites at the end of the hosted webcast, revealing that the rocket launched 16.7 metric tons (~36,800 lb) into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The Last confirmed record – CEO Elon Musk claimed – it was 16.25 tons spread across 53 Starlink V1.5 satellites, which doesn’t fully add up unless SpaceX adds several kilograms to the mass of each satellite between March and August 2022.
Assuming both numbers are comparable, the improvement of about 3% is a far cry from Earth-shaking or a surprising step forward for SpaceX, a company best known for its continuous iterative improvement. What’s impressive, however, is that SpaceX has pushed the envelope as the Falcon 9 is fast approaching its 150th successful launch in a row and the only rocket currently certified to launch multiple NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. The fifth NASA astronauts (Crew-5) from SpaceX is scheduled to launch as early as October 3. If SpaceX pushing the envelope on Starlink 4-23 somehow caused the launch to fail, All The Falcon 9 rockets would likely have been out of action for months, almost certainly delaying Crew 5 and throwing NASA’s International Space Station program into disarray.
Given how successful and reliable the Falcon 9 is already, it would be hard to blame SpaceX if it decided to freeze the program and avoid additional changes, even if those changes could slightly improve the rocket’s performance. Instead, the company somehow managed to keep upgrading the performance of the Falcon 9 without clearly affecting its reliability or angering even tougher customers from the US government. Even the Falcon landings, once considered a secondary target that could be allowed to fail, were unharmed. Starlink 4-23 saw the 64th successful booster landing for SpaceX in a row.
Next, SpaceX Scheduled To launch Starlink 3-4 no later than (NET) August 31, Starlink 4-20 NET September 4, and Starlink 4-2 NET September 7.
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