On February 4 2021, SpaceX launched the eighteenth Starlink mission (Starlink L-18) aboard their workhorse Falcon 9 rocket, from SLC-40 in Cape Canaveral.
This mission sent a further 60 V1.0 Starlink satellites into low-Earth orbit, bringing the total amount of orbiting Starlink satellites to 1,021. Every mission strengthens the Starlink constellation and pushes ever closer to widespread rollout of its internet access.
L-18 was initially set to use B1059.5, a Falcon 9 Block 5 booster, however a last-minute change to B1060.5 meant that this launch set a new record for reusability. B1060.5 had previously supported four missions; GPS III SV07 Matthew Henson, Starlink L-11 and L-14, and Türksat 5A.
The booster’s last mission, Türksat 5A, launched and landed on January 8 2021 meaning that its use in Starlink L-18 marked a record turnaround time of just 28 days, beating the previous record of 38 days held by B1051.8.
Not only was this the fastest turnaround time, but also the first time a Falcon 9 booster had been launched twice in a month (figuratively), and the 24th consecutive landing of a booster.
Quick turnaround times of Falcon boosters had been an aspirational target of SpaceX’s for a long time. After all, it’s all well and good returning the booster in one piece, but if it’s return-to-flight time can’t keep up with the launch cadence, then the premise is significantly less effective.
SpaceX have an aim of flying Falcon 9 boosters at least 10 times, before major refurbishment is required. Elon Musk has said that he hopes this can be achieved by the end of 2021.
Ahem, yes, it was the 3rd flight of this booster & 3rd flight for active half of fairing. Aiming for 10+ flights of booster & fairing by end of next year.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 6, 2020
Currently, the booster fleet has two ‘life leaders’. These are B1051.8 and B1049.8, who have had 8 and 7 flights respectively. The majority of their life has been used on Starlink missions, which are perceived as lower-risk than using a ‘life leader’ booster on a crewed flight for example. It’s expected both these boosters will achieve 10 flights.
What will be interesting to monitor, is what SpaceX will do with boosters after they have achieved over 10 flights. The cost of having to conduct major refurbishments on them may be undermined by building new boosters which require minimal maintenance between flights. It’s a cost-benefit analysis situation.
But for now, the Falcon 9 launch manifest remains incredibly strong, providing an exciting opportunity for SpaceX to further push the limits of reusable rocket technology.