Falcon 9 launches safely, but suffers an early engine shutdown [Updated]

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8:30am ET Wednesday update: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket took off on Wednesday morning as scheduled, and the first stage successfully delivered its 60 Starlink satellites into orbit. However, after making an historic fifth flight to orbit, the rocket’s first stage was lost during a landing attempt on a drone ship.

This video from shortly before the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage engines shut off appears to show something not going quite right.

This sure didn’t look norminal, near first stage MECO. #Starlink pic.twitter.com/FtJ2sX72wK

– Trevor Mahlmann (@TrevorMahlmann) March 18, 2020

In response to a snarky tweet by the author about the first stage landing in the ocean, SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk clarified that, “There was also an early engine shutdown on ascent, but it didn’t affect orbit insertion. Shows value of having 9 engines!” It is likely the engine failure impacted the landing attempt however.

Musk vowed there would be a “thorough investigation” before the company’s next mission, likely the launch of the SAOCOM 1B satellite. It presently is scheduled for the end of March, but this is uncertain both due to the aforementioned investigation as well as the Covid-19 crisis affecting launch range operations at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

7:15am ET Wednesday update: Weather is good. After an engine issue on Sunday, the Falcon 9 rocket is good. And the 60 Starlink satellites in the booster’s payload fairing are good. All, therefore, remains set for a second attempt to launch the sixth Starlink mission at 8:16am ET Wednesday (12:16 UTC).

The webcast below should begin about 15 minutes before liftoff.

9:30am ET Sunday update: The flight computers stopped the launch of a Falcon 9 rocket on Sunday morning at T-0. There was apparently a power issue with at least one of the rocket’s nine engines that caused an automatic shutdown after ignition occurred. The company will not make a second attempt on Sunday.

SpaceX has a backup opportunity for Monday morning, likely around 9am ET (13:00 UTC), but it is not clear whether they will utilize it. This will be determined after engineers analyze the cause of Sunday morning’s abort and determine the best path forward toward a safe launch. Weather is similarly favorable for Monday.

Original post: In launching its next batch of Starlink satellites-the company’s sixth batch of 60 operational spacecraft-SpaceX plans to continue to push the bounds of reuse. With this mission, for the first time, the company plans to fly the same Falcon 9 first stage for the fifth time.

After completing a static fire test of its Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage on Friday, the company is now targeting Sunday at 9:22am ET (13:22 UTC) for the mission from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center. The weather is expected to be favorable, with only a 10-percent chance of poor conditions due to too many cumulus clouds.

SpaceX also announced on Friday that it will reuse the rocket’s payload fairing, which previously flew on a Starlink mission in May 2019. This means that the only part of the Falcon 9 rocket not being recycled is its second stage, which is powered by a single Merlin vacuum engine and pushes the satellites from the edge of space to their deployment into an orbit more than 200km above the ground.

This particular first stage flew its first mission in July 2018, when it lofted a batch of Iridium satellites into orbit. It launched its next mission, an Earth observation satellite for Argentina, less than three months later. Overall, this first stage has averaged four months between flights.

Since introducing the final iteration of its Falcon 9 rocket, dubbed Block 5, SpaceX has been working to turn around the first stages faster. The company believes it can recycle first-stage rockets-from landing to reuse-within about 30 days. (So far, it has managed to re-fly a first stage about two months after landing). After each flight, a maintenance team still opens up the rocket to inspect its joints for leaks, ensure the reliability of the avionics, inspect welds, and more. The company’s engineers and technicians are still learning, so as they gain more data, they should be able to increase their understanding of what needs inspection and what does not.

The company presently intends to fly each Falcon 9 rocket first stage 10 times before retiring them. Some early re-flown first stages-variants of the Falcon 9 developed before the Block 5 iteration that were rated only for two flights-are now ending up in museums.

For Sunday’s launch attempt, SpaceX will try to recover this first stage on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. It will also attempt to retrieve the fairing halves. This will be the sixth launch of the year for SpaceX.