SpaceX completes ninth rocket launch, eighth landing this year

SpaceX has launched another batch of 60 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit, marking the company’s ninth launch (and eighth rocket landing) this year.

With Starlink V1 L22 set to be SpaceX’s final (orbital) launch of the quarter, the company is on track to complete 36 launches this year if it can replicate the feat three times. That would fall a third short of SpaceX’s ambitious 48-launch target, but it would still beat the 26-launch record set just last year by nearly 40%.

Falcon 9 booster B1060 sailed through boost process, reentry, and descent without issue before sticking the landing on drone ship “Of Course I Really Love You” (OCISLY), supporting its sixth orbital-class launch and landing in less than nine months. Notably, every orbital SpaceX launch this year – including Starlink-22 – has relied on a flight-proven booster, with the first launch of a new booster unlikely before the second half of 2021.

Falcon 9 booster B1060 aced its sixth launch and landing in eight months. (SpaceX)

Starlink-22 is officially SpaceX’s 23rd operational Starlink launch and 24th overall Starlink launch, since it includes a batch of 10 of the first polar Starlink satellites – also carrying space-laser prototypes – flown on a commercial rideshare mission earlier this year. Those two dozen launches were completed in 22 months, including all 23 operational missions in just 16 months, and delivered nearly 1400 broadband satellites to LEO.

With the exception of 62 prototype Starlink satellites, 12 of which are still in orbit, just about 2% of the 1322 operational spacecraft launched have experienced a problem, and just over 1% have deorbited and burned up in Earth’s atmosphere. If the Starlink-22 batch continues on its current route, the failure rate for the last 890 satellites launched would be as low as 0.6 percent.

The latest batch in a long line of Starlink satellites now in orbit. (SpaceX)

Apart from continuing what appears to be a halcyon year of launches and Starlink milestones, Starlink-22 was SpaceX’s fourth launch of the month, making March 2021 the company’s second-ever four-launch month. To meet CEO Elon Musk’s ambitious 48-launch goal set last year, SpaceX will need to maintain that cadence a little less than one launch every week.

In November 2020, SpaceX accomplished its first four-launch month, and repeating the feat only four months later is a clear indicator that weekly launches are well within reach as operational efficiency improves. Only a few orbital rockets in history have achieved comparable operational peaks, and Falcon 9 is the first in decades to come close to a launch cadence of 30-40+ launches every year.

SpaceX’s next launch (unsurprisingly a Starlink mission) is expected sometime in early April, followed by at least another one or two more Starlink missions before the focus shifts to Crew-2 – Crew Dragon’s third astronaut launch – around the second half of the month.

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