As the rest of the world slowly grinds to a halt amid the coronavirus pandemic, the US launch industry is still sending rockets into space, with another SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket set to take off from Florida on Wednesday morning. SpaceX is launching its latest batch of 60 satellites for its Starlink constellation, aimed at beaming internet coverage down to Earth. And the company is using a very special Falcon 9 rocket for the job: a vehicle that’s been to space and back four times before.
This is the second launch attempt for this mission, which originally tried to get off the ground on Sunday. SpaceX got all the way to T-0, but had to abort the mission just before takeoff. If the vehicle launches successfully today, the rocket will become the first of SpaceX’s fleet to go to space for a fifth time. And it’s possible it could become the first to land for a fifth time, too. SpaceX is aiming to land the Falcon 9 rocket on one of its drone ships in the Atlantic Ocean following the launch, which would be the 51st landing of a Falcon 9 core for the company.
In fact, SpaceX is trying to recover as much of this rocket as possible post-takeoff. Two of SpaceX’s boats equipped with giant nets will attempt to catch the rocket’s nosecone — the bulbous structure on top of the Falcon 9 that shields the satellites during the climb to space. The nosecone, or payload fairing, breaks in two once the rocket is in space and each half falls to Earth, usually hitting the ocean and going unrecovered. But SpaceX has been trying periodically to catch these pieces following launches in order to use them again on future flights.
All in all, it’s an ambitious launch for SpaceX that could contain a lot of firsts for the company. If each piece of hardware lands or is caught as planned, it would be the first time SpaceX has successfully recovered that many pieces of a rocket following a launch. So far, SpaceX has been able to land its Falcon 9 and catch one half of the fairing following a flight; it hasn’t been able to catch both halves on one mission yet.
The enterprising mission comes amid a time of uncertainty for the launch industry, which is just starting to feel the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. While US launches still remain on track, European launch provider Arianespace announced yesterday that it’s suspending all launches from its spaceport in French Guiana for the foreseeable future, in order to protect the company’s personnel and people who live in the area.
So far, SpaceX and the United Launch Alliance — two of the biggest rocket companies in the US — have not announced any delays to launches due to coronavirus concerns. And the US Space Force’s 45th Space Wing, which oversees launches out of Cape Canaveral, Florida, does not anticipate the need to reschedule any missions out of the spaceport at this time.
“The DoD’s priorities are the protection of service members, their families, and the department’s civilian work force; safeguarding and maintaining our ability to defend the nation and its interests; and supporting our U.S. Government partners in this fight,” a US Space Force spokesperson tells The Verge in a statement. “At this time, there are no impacts to U.S. Space Force mission-essential activities due to COVID-19 concerns.” The spokesperson clarified that rocket launches are considered “mission-essential.”
But these launches may have less of an audience than past missions. The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, a popular place to view launches out of Cape Canaveral, is temporarily closed to the public. Journalists and photographers covering the launch are normally bused to the launchpad to set up their cameras, but they are now caravanning to the site in their own cars. Other countries are getting even stricter, with Russia’s state space corporation, Roscosmos, completely banning media from attending the April flight of its Soyuz rocket, which will send three crew members to the International Space Station.
It’s an uncertain time for the launch industry right now, with new restrictions changing every few hours. But for now, SpaceX is flying. The company is aiming to launch its Falcon 9 at 8:16AM ET on March 18th. If the rocket doesn’t get off the ground on Wednesday, SpaceX has a backup launch date at 7:56AM ET on Thursday, March 19th. SpaceX plans to live stream the launch, with coverage beginning about 15 minutes before liftoff, so you can watch this mission and continue to social distance at the same time.