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SpaceX delays the launch of Starlink as the ocean passes drone ship upgrades



The 13th launch of SpaceX Starlink was indefinitely delayed by “bad weather in the recovery area, later explained by CEO Elon Musk as the case of the drone ship losing its battle with the ocean.”

Initially scheduled for launch as early as September 17, Starlink-12 – the twelfth Starlink v1.0 mission – was moved to September 18 about an hour before takeoff. SpaceX didn’t offer a reason then, but is now reporting that the weather in the recovery zone (Atlantic Ocean) was the cause of the 24-hour recycling and indefinite launch delay that followed soon after.

CEO Elon Musk went further, revealing that the SpaceX drone ship assigned to Starlink-1

2 was unable to maintain its position in the strong currents of the Atlantic Ocean, forcing the company to delay the mission indefinitely. Until conditions improve in SpaceX’s drone ship recovery zone, the company will likely not be able to launch Starlink missions. Musk, however, already has a solution in mind.

In the same tweet, Musk revealed that SpaceX means for his drone ship “thrusters to be upgraded for future missions,” an obviously intuitive response to drone ships being overwhelmed by ocean currents. There’s a simple problem, though: the Just Read The Instructions drone ship, the same ship currently unable to hold its position in the (admittedly strong) ocean currents, completed extensive upgrades just a handful of months ago.

Drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY), December 2019. (SpaceX)
Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) drone ship, January 2019. (Pauline Acalin)

Prior to these updates, JRTI and OCISLY were effectively identical – both equipped with a few modest generators and four relatively small (bright blue) station-holding thrusters. After more than half a year of work, the JRTI drone ship exited the other side with significantly larger azimuth thruster pods and at least several times the power output. The space beyond the JRTI booster landing deck has been more or less filled to the brim with new generators.

In other words, barring some major structural changes or a smaller landing area for Falcon repeaters, it’s hard to imagine how SpaceX could substantially upgrade Just Read The Instructions’s already upgraded generators and thrusters.

Since then, the JRTI drone ship has been equipped with extraordinary thrusters and upgrades. (Richard Angle)

In defense of the drone ship JRTI, the east coast still hears the remnants of Hurricane Sally at the same time that Hurricane Teddy is just days away. Just about 48 hours from now, Starlink-12’s Booster Falcon 9 landing zone will be subject to winds of 30-40 mph (50-70 km / h) and peak wave heights of 15 feet (~ 4.5 m) in the shadow of Teddy. The seas in that region are likely to remain unsustainable for lure landings until September 24 or 25 at the earliest without major changes in current predictions.

Current climate models do not necessarily predict an increase in the frequency of hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean as a result of global warming, although warming will most likely increase the intensity of most hurricanes to a greater extent. As such, it’s a bit of a wash as to whether investing heavily in dramatic drone ship performance upgrades would really be worth the recovery of the Booster Falcon, given that tropical storm season only lasts a fraction of the year. If SpaceX wants to consistently launch 50-100 times a year from Florida, it’s likely to be a no-brainer.

The Falcon 9 B1051 and its Starlink-9 payload enjoy a summer shower in Florida. (Richard Angle)

Regardless, if SpaceX pursues updates well beyond Just Read The Instructions’s current setup, it will be fascinating to see how the company’s two flagship drone ships turn out. If current predictions hold up, Starlink-12 is unlikely to launch until late next week, a delay that pushed Starlink-13 (previously NET in late September) to October.

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