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
Stands down from tomorrow’s launch of Starlink due to severe weather in the recovery area, which is likely to persist for a few days. Will announce a new start date once confirmed
– SpaceX (@SpaceX) September 18, 2020
The current was too strong for drones to stop. Thrusters will be upgraded for future missions.
– Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 18, 2020
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.
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.
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.
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.
Check out Teslarati’s newsletter for quick updates, ground perspectives and unique glimpses of SpaceX’s rocket launch and recovery processes.