SpaceX has added another 60 satellites to its Starlink constellation despite a rare Falcon 9 engine failure.
The sixth batch of Starlink satellites was launched aboard a flight-proven Falcon 9 from the Kennedy Space Center at 12:16 UTC this morning. Approximately 2 minutes and 20 seconds into the flight, one of the nine Merlin engines that power the rocket’s first stage shut down prematurely.
Under the power of the remaining eight Merlin engines, the mission required the first stage burn to continue for 5 to 6 seconds longer than planned. The additional burn time consumed an extra tonne of fuel making recovery of the booster impossible. Following separation, the stage completed reentry and was destroyed as it splashed down in the Atlantic without the soft cushion of control deceleration.
Despite the anomalous first stage burn, the remainder of the primary mission was completed successfully with all 60 Starlink satellites being deployed without further incident.
Following the launch, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk confirmed the premature engine shutdown on Twitter. The mercurial CEO added that a thorough investigation would be conducted before the next mission.
The Falcon 9 first stage (B1048) used for this morning’s flight had previously been flown on four separate missions. It was the first time SpaceX had attempted to launch a first stage for a fifth time. The anomaly may, as a result, have been an indication of wear catching up to the stage.
This, however, seems unlikely as Musk has previously stated that the Falcon 9 Block 5 first stage boosters are rated for more than 10 launches each. If this is true, the stage is barely through half of its operational life cycle.