Spaceflight Insider

SpaceX successfully launches the sixth Starlink mission.

Launch of Starlink-5 atop Falcon 9 B1048.5 from Kennedy Space Center’s LC-39A, March 18, 2020. Credit – Matt Haskell, SpaceFlight Insider

SpaceX successfully launched its sixth batch of satellites for its Starlink constellation.

Prior to launch, the standard pre-mission static fire occurred on March 13. The nine Merlin engines briefly fired and generated over a million pounds of thrust as the rocket remained attached to the mobile transporter, erector, and launcher.  Notwithstanding that successful test, a previous launch attempt on March 15 resulted in an auto-abort shut down of the engines at T-0, due to an out of family power reading.

The mission lifted off from historic Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at 8:16 EDT (12:16 UTC). After lifting away from the pad, the vehicle performed a pitch, roll, and yaw maneuver to attain the proper ascent profile for orbit.

“Liftoff!”, of Falcon 9 and Starlink-5, from Kennedy Space Center’s LC-39A. Launch occurred at 8:16 am EDT, March 18, 2020. Credit – Theresa Cross, SpaceFlight Insider

At one minute and twelve seconds, the vehicle reached max Q, which is when the vehicle experiences maximum aerodynamic pressure. After another 80 seconds of flight, the flight-proven first stage shut down and began an attempted journey to rendezvous with the Autonomous Spaceport Droneship, “Of Course I Still Love You.”

Meanwhile, the second stage conducted its one and only burn for today’s launch. At three minutes and ten seconds into the flight, the payload fairing, which protects the satellites during ascent, was successfully jettisoned.

Unfortunately, today’s first stage was unable to complete its fifth successful landing, failing to land as intended on “Of Course I Still Love You”, which was on station in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South Carolina. Review of in-flight ascent video shows that there was an engine anomaly just prior to first stage main engine cut-off (MECO), and according to a later tweet by SpaceX’s Elon Musk, there was “an early engine shutdown on ascent, but it didn’t affect orbit insertion.” Continuing, he indicated that there would be a “thorough investigation needed before [the] next mission”. 

B1048.5 on ascent Starlink-5

Ascent of Falcon 9 and Starlink-5 payload, March 18, 2020. While first stage B1048.5 successfully lifted the mission from Earth, it suffered a mid-flight engine anomaly and failed to be recovered. The payload was successfully inserted into orbit. Credit – Theresa Cross, SpaceFlight Insider

The primary mission continued through to the successful deployment of payload, with the second stage burning until T plus eight minutes and 52 seconds. It then entered an almost six-minute coast phase.

At a mission elapsed time of 14 minutes and 48 seconds, the 60 Starlink satellites separated from the second stage into low earth orbit.

Today’s Starlink-5 mission was the first time that the first stage of a Falcon 9 flew for the fifth time. The booster, B1048.5, had previously launched the Iridium-7 and SAOCOM-1 missions from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and the Nusantara Satu and Starlink-1 missions from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida.

When asked online about any possible correlation between today’s loss of B1048.5 and Sunday’s auto abort, Musk shared “Last launch aborted due to slightly high power. Possibly, but not obviously, related to today. This vehicle [B1048.5] has seen a lot of wear, so today isn’t a big surprise.” Preemptively addressing any concerns that future commercial SpaceX clients might have about the risks of operating in unprecedented territory of reused flight hardware, he continued, “Life leader rockets are used only for internal missions. Won’t risk non-SpaceX satellites.”

60 Starlink Satellites deployed

Deployment of 60 Starlink satellites, following March 18, 2020 launch of Starlink-5. Credit – SpaceX


Patrick Attwell is a native of Houston, Texas but he currently resides in Austin, Texas where he studies accounting at Concordia University Texas. Atwell has had a passion for all things pertaining to aerospace, rocketry, and aviation. Atwell has worked to cover these fields for more than a decade. After he attended and watched the launch of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission it gave him what is known in the space community as “rocket fever.” Since that time, Atwell has followed his dreams and has covered events dealing with NASA’s Commercial Crew flight assignments at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and other space-related events in the Lone Star State.

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