A SpaceX Falcon 9 deployed a new group of Starlink satellites on March 4 as well as landed the booster after a period of two and a half weeks just after the previous launch’s touchdown failed. At 3:24 a.m. Eastern, the Falcon 9 rocket took off from the Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center. Around 65 minutes after the liftoff, the rocket launched its payload of sixty Starlink satellites into the orbit.
After the liftoff, Eight and a half minutes later, the Falcon 9 first stage landed safely on the droneship in the Atlantic. The Telesat 18 Vantage communications satellite, the last batch of the Iridium satellites, as well as five pairs of Starlink satellites had all been launched by that booster, which was on its eighth mission.
The landing try was noteworthy because the preceding Falcon 9 launch on February 15 failed to successfully land the booster, ending a two-decade string of successful landings. Hot gas entered a small hole in the cover covering one of the stage’s nine Merlin engines, forcing the engine to close down during ascent, according to a SpaceX representative. While the vehicle’s engine-out functionality enabled the mission to proceed, the stage’s failed engine left it with an insufficient thrust to land.
While, unlike previous launches, SpaceX did not offer video from cameras installed on the first stage, this latest launch seemed to go smoothly. The company did not clarify why there was no video in its deployment webcast, but the shortage of footage from the rocket coupled with the low cloud deck indicated that webcast fans only saw a dark screen for the majority of the first stage’s flight.
With this launch, the overall number of the Starlink satellites launched has risen to 1,205, though over 60 have since deorbited. Three satellites launched on two separate occasions in October failed to lift their orbits after deployment, forcing them to reenter the atmosphere only a few weeks later. In a report with the Federal Communications Commission on February 22, SpaceX claimed that 720 of the company’s last 723 satellites were “maneuverable above injection level,” but did not specify that the 3 that were not are all those deployed in October.
SpaceX stated it has “identified and fixed the underlying cause for several satellites which were non-maneuverable above the injection altitude,” which includes increased factory testing and software updates for other Starlink satellites in the orbit.