SpaceX launches Starlink as Ocean to launch, beating drone ship upgrade

SpaceX’s 13th StarLink launch has been delayed indefinitely due to “severe weather in the recovery zone”, later explained by CEO Elon Musk as a case of the drone ship losing its battle with the sea.

Originally scheduled to begin on 17 September, Starlink-12 – the 12th StarLink v1.0 mission – was pushed to 18 September, about an hour before liftoff. SpaceX did not provide a reason then, but it is now reporting that the weather in the recovery zone (Atlantic Ocean) was blamed for the 24-hour recycle and indefinite launch delay that began shortly thereafter.

CEO Elon Musk revealed that the SpaceX drone ship delivered to Starlink-12 was unable to hold its position in strong Atlantic Ocean currents, causing the company to delay the mission indefinitely. Until conditions improve in SpaceX’s drone ship recovery zone, the company will likely be unable to launch a Starlink mission. Musk, however, already has a solution in mind.

In the same tweet, Musk revealed that SpaceX meant his drone ship “thrusters to be upgraded for future missions”, apparently a spontaneous response to drone ships being overridden by ocean currents. There is a simple problem, however: the drone ship Just Read the Instructions, the same ship currently unable to hold its position in the (jointly strong) ocean currents, completed extensive upgrades just a few months ago.

Course I Still I Love You (OCISLY) drone ship, December 2019. (SpaceX)
Read the drone ship Just the Instructions (JRTI), January 2019. (Pauline Eklin)

Prior to those upgrades, the JRTI and OCili were effectively identical – both sporting some modest generators and four relatively small station-keeping thrusters (bright blue). After more than half a year of work, the drone ship JRTI came off the other end with dramatically larger azimuth thruster pods and at least several times the power output. The location beyond the booster landing deck of the drone ship JRTI has been filled to the brim with more or less new generators.

In other words, due to some major structural changes or the lack of a smaller landing area for Falcon boosters, it is hard to imagine how SpaceX could adequately upgrade already upgraded generators and thrusters.

The drone ship JRTI has since been designed with dramatic thrusters and power upgrades. (Richard Engle)

In rescue of the drone ship JRTI, the East Seaboard is still feeling the remnants of Hurricane Sally at the same time as Hurricane Teddy is just a few days away. Just ~ 48 hours from now, the Falcon 9 booster landing zone of the Starlink-12 is subject to 30–40 mph (50–70 km / h) winds and a peak altitude of 15 feet (~ 4.5 m) in the shadow of Teddy. Will happen. The seas in that area will remain unstable for booster landings until 24 September or 25 September without major changes in the current forecast.

Current climate models do not necessarily predict an increase in the frequency of Atlantic Ocean storms as a result of global warming, although warming will greatly increase the intensity of the storm to a major degree. As such, it is a bit of a washout whether the massive investment in dramatic drone ship performance upgrades would actually be worth it for Falcon booster recovery, given that the tropical storm season only lasts a fraction of the year. If SpaceX wants to continuously launch 50–100 + times per year from Florida, it is likely to be a no-brainer.

The Falcon 9B1051 and its Starlink-9 payload enjoy a Florida summer bath. (Richard Engle)

Despite this, if SpaceX pursues an upgrade far beyond the current setup of Just Read the Instructions, it will be interesting to see what the company’s two workhorse drone ships are looking for. If current forecasts are to be believed, Starlink-12 is unlikely to launch by the end of next week, a delay that pushed Starlink-13 into October (previously NET at the end of September).

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