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SpaceX is delaying Starlink’s launch as the ocean outperforms drone ship upgrades

SpaceX’s 13th Starlink launch was indefinitely delayed by “Recreational Storms” later explained by CEO Elon Musk when the drone ship lost its battle against the ocean.

Starlink-12 – the 12th Starlink v1.0 mission – was originally scheduled to launch on September 17th and was postponed to September 18th about an hour before launch. SpaceX didn’t give a reason then, but is now reporting that the weather in the Recovery Zone (Atlantic Ocean) was responsible for the 24-hour recycling and indefinite launch delay that soon followed.

CEO Elon Musk went further, noting that the SpaceX drone ship assigned to Starlink-12 was unable to maintain its position in strong currents in the Atlantic Ocean, forcing the company to postpone the mission indefinitely. Unless conditions improve in SpaceX̵

7;s drone ship recovery zone, the company is unlikely to be able to launch Starlink missions. However, Musk already has a solution in mind.

In the same tweet, Musk revealed that SpaceX means its drone ship “needs to be upgraded engines for future missions,” an apparently intuitive response to drone ships being overwhelmed by ocean currents. There is one simple problem, however: the drone ship Just Read The Instructions, the same ship currently unable to maintain its position in (admittedly strong) ocean currents, made major upgrades a few months ago.

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

Before these upgrades, the JRTI and OCISLY were practically identical – both with some modest generators and four relatively small stationary engines (light blue). After more than half a year of work, the drone ship JRTI came out on the other end with dramatically larger azimuth engine pods and at least several times the power. The space behind the booster landing deck of the drone ship JRTI was more or less filled to the brim with new generators.

In other words, aside from some major structural changes or a smaller landing pad for Falcon boosters, it’s hard to imagine how SpaceX could significantly upgrade Just Read The Instructions’ already updated generators and thrusters.

The drone ship JRTI has since been fitted with dramatic engines and performance improvements. (Richard Angle)

In defense of the drone ship JRTI, the east coast is still feeling the remains of Hurricane Sally, while Hurricane Teddy is only a few days away. In only ~ 48 hours, Starlink-12’s Falcon 9 booster landing zone in the shadow of Teddy will be exposed to 50-70 km / h wind and peak wave heights of ~ 4.5 m. The seas in this region are unlikely to remain unsustainable for booster landings until September 24 or 25, with no significant change 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 the warming is very likely to greatly increase the intensity of most hurricanes. As a result, it is a bit of a blur whether investing in dramatic performance upgrades for drone ships to restore Falcon boosters is actually worthwhile, given that the tropical storm season lasts only a fraction of the year. If SpaceX consistently wants to launch from Florida more than 50 to 100 times a year, it is probably a no-brainer.

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

Regardless, it will be fascinating to see what the company’s two workhorse drone ships look like as SpaceX pursues upgrades well beyond the current Just Read The Instructions setup. If current forecasts are correct, Starlink-12 is unlikely to launch by the end of next week. Starlink-13 (previously NET at the end of September) has postponed this to October.

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