After wind shear pushed SpaceX’s Starlink launch debut from May 15th to May 16th, issues with satellite software have forced the company to scrub the second attempt, delaying the launch another ~7 days.
For a mission as spectacularly ambitious as SpaceX’s 60-satellite Starlink launch, delays due to those satellites should come as little to no surprise. Given the sheer numbers involved and the fact that this is the first flight-hardware based on SpaceX’s radically redesigned Starlink satellite bus, this scrub is just a part of the process of developing new spacecraft.
For the time being, this scrub can effectively be considered indefinite. Troubleshooting 60 high-performance satellites – some with possible software or hardware faults – could understandably be a very time-consuming process, particularly if these specific spacecraft are closer to a beta-test than an actual final product. Based on comments made by CEO Elon Musk, that is likely the case. As such, troubleshooting hardware/software faults at the launch site while still mated to Falcon 9 will likely provide excellent experience for all involved.
When dealing with the number of satellites SpaceX will need to realize their Starlink constellation, the company will need to be able to handle the anomalies that will inevitably follow the preparation and launch of 1000 or more satellites annually. Starlink v0.9 is simply the first step – albeit a shockingly large one – in that direction.
Far more important and far less guaranteed is Falcon 9’s wholly unremarkable flow up to launch. Despite it being SpaceX’s third attempt at launching a Falcon 9 booster three times, Falcon 9 B1049 has remained ready to launch throughout the last ~60 hours of operations. Weather is weather and the first batch of dozens of advanced, custom-built communications satellites will inevitably experience bugs, but Falcon 9’s stoic performance is somewhat less guaranteed.
For Starlink to succeed, the launch component of the equation is going to be just as critical – if not more critical – than ensuring that every single satellite is perfect prior to launch, at least within reason. A failure to act as a good steward of the space debris environment could have major regulatory consequences. However, nothing will kill Starlink faster than unreliable, delay-ridden launches, seemingly an unlikely proposition in SpaceX’s current condition.
So long as Falcon 9 Block 5 remains as reliable and consistent as it has thus far proven to be, even fairly serious issues with aspects of the Starlink constellation itself should be more akin to roadblocks than showstoppers.
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Author: Eric Ralph