Featured Image Source: SpaceX
On March 15, SpaceX attempted to launch Starlink atop a Falcon 9 rocket that previously flew on four missions, but the rocket's computerized systems detected an anomaly with one of the rocket's nine Merlin 1D engines. SpaceX stated that the "standard auto-abort triggered due to out of family data during engine power check." It was the first time engineers had attempted to reuse the same first-stage rocket booster a fifth time, in an effort to reduce the cost of spaceflight. Falcon 9 boosters in the Block 5 series were designed to fly up to 10 times, the most re-flights a particular booster has had is 5.
On March 18, the company conducted the mission again. The Falcon 9 lifted-off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida; it successfully deployed a cluster of 60 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit, but SpaceX failed to recover the booster. The company recovers Falcon 9's first-stage by performing a controlled landing into autonomous droneship pads at sea in order to reuse it again. According to Elon Musk, founder and chief executive at SpaceX, the failed landing occurred due to one of the nine Merlin 1D engines on the rocket’s first-stage shutting-down prematurely during ascent from space, he said:
"...There was also an early engine shutdown on ascent, but it didn’t affect orbit insertion. Shows value of having 9 engines! Thorough investigation needed before next mission."
Yeah. There was also an early engine shutdown on ascent, but it didn’t affect orbit insertion. Shows value of having 9 engines! Thorough investigation needed before next mission.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 18, 2020
When asked if the failed landing was due to the engine issue that triggered the abort shutdown, Musk stated via Twitter: "Last launch aborted due to slightly high power. Possibly, but not obviously, related [...] This vehicle has seen a lot of wear, so today isn’t a big surprise. Life leader rockets are used only for internal missions. Won’t risk non-SpaceX satellites."
SpaceX is slated to launch their first manned mission, Demo-2, sometime in mid-to-late May. NASA astronauts will launch aboard SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station atop a Falcon 9 rocket. Although, rocket engine issues are a rare experience and the Demo-2 mission will utilize a new Falcon 9, the agency has announced it will join the investigation to figure out what exactly caused the Falcon 9 engine to malfunction.
NASA spokesman Josh Finch said today (March 24), that representatives from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program will be present during SpaceX’s ongoing investigation of the engine that prematurely shutdown during the previous Starlink mission. Finch stated:
"According to the CCtCap [Commercial Crew Transportation Capability] contracts, SpaceX is required to make available to NASA all data and resulting reports. SpaceX, with NASA’s concurrence, would need to implement any corrective actions found during the investigation related to its commercial crew work prior to its flight test with astronauts to the International Space Station."
The agency wants to ensure the issue won't repeat itself during a manned flight to the space station. Demo-2 will be the first crewed rocket flight the United States conducts in roughly a decade!
Its worth noting that SpaceX is mostly successful during all of their missions. Engineers have developed the most technologically advanced rockets in the world. For over 10 years, the company has conducted 84 fully successful missions out of 86, and only experienced critical issues twice.
About the Author
Evelyn J. Arevalo joined Tesmanian in 2019 to cover news as a Space Journalist and SpaceX Starbase Texas Correspondent. Evelyn is specialized in rocketry and space exploration. The main topics she covers are SpaceX and NASA.