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SpaceX is delaying the launch of Starlink when the sea surpasses drone upgrades

SpaceX’s 13th Starlink launch has been delayed indefinitely by “difficult weather in the recovery area, later explained by CEO Elon Musk as the case of the drone ship that lost its battle with the sea.

Originally scheduled to launch as early as September 17, Starlink-12 – the 12th Starlink v1.0 mission – is postponed to September 18, about an hour before takeoff. SpaceX gave no reason then but now reports that the weather in the recovery zone (Atlantic) was to blame for the 24-hour recovery and the indefinite launch delay that followed shortly after.

CEO Elon Musk went further and revealed that the SpaceX drone ship assigned to Starlink-12 could not maintain its position in the strong Atlantic, which forced the company to delay the mission indefinitely. Until conditions improve in SpaceX̵

7;s drone ship recovery zone, the company will probably not be able to start Starlink missions. Musk, however, already has a solution in mind.

In the same tweet, Musk revealed that SpaceX means for its drone ships that “thrusters will be upgraded for future missions”, an obviously intuitive response to drones that are overwhelmed by ocean currents. However, there is a simple problem: the drone ship Just Read The Instructions, the same ship that currently cannot maintain its position in (albeit strong) ocean currents, completed extensive upgrades just a handful of months ago.

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

Prior to these upgrades, the JRTI and OCISLY were effectively identical – both had some modest generators and four relatively small stationary thrusters (light blue). After more than half a year of work, the drone ship JRTI came out at the other end with dramatically larger azimuth propellers and at least several times the power. The space beyond the drone vessel JRTI’s booster landing deck has more or less been filled to the brim with new generators.

In other words, with the exception of some major structural changes or a smaller landing area for Falcon boosters, it’s hard to imagine how SpaceX could significantly upgrade Just Read The Instructions’ already upgraded generators and thrusters.

Drone ship JRTI has since been equipped with dramatic thrusters and power upgrades. (Richard Angle)

In the drone ship’s JRTI defense, the east coast still feels the remnants of Hurricane Sally while Hurricane Teddy is only a few days away. Only ~ 48 hours ahead, the Starlink-12s Falcon 9 booster landing zone will be exposed to 30-40 mph (50-70 km / h) winds 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 booster landings until September 24 or 25 at the earliest without major changes in current forecasts.

Current climate models do not necessarily predict an increase in the frequency of hurricanes in the Atlantic as a result of global warming, although warming is likely to increase the intensity of most hurricanes to a large extent. As such, it’s a bit of a wash if it’s worth investing heavily in dramatic performance upgrades for Falcon booster recovery drone vessels, given that the tropical storm season lasts only a fraction of the year. If SpaceX consistently wants to launch 50-100 times a year from Florida, that’s probably a good idea.

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

Regardless of whether SpaceX makes upgrades far beyond Just Read The Instructions’ current setting, it will be fascinating to see what the company’s two workhorse drone ships stop looking like. If current forecasts hold, it is unlikely that Starlink-12 will launch until the end of next week, a delay that has driven Starlink-13 (formerly NET at the end of September) into October.

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