Two SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets performed back-to-back Starlink launches less than 24 hours apart, successfully delivering 106 Starlink satellites to low Earth orbit (LEO).
Originally scheduled to be a few hours apart, slight delays finally saw Starlink 4-13 and Starlink 4-15 settling in at 6:07 p.m. EDT, May 13 and 4:40 p.m. EDT, May 14, respectively. Entering the home stretch, launch preparations went smoothly and both Falcon 9 rockets finally lifted off without a hitch.
The series started with Starlink 4-13 on Friday. SpaceX chose Falcon 9 B1063 to support the Starlink launch and the booster did its job well, wrapping up its fifth launch since November 2020 with a rare landing aboard the Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) drone. Since SpaceX permanently relocated OCISLY from the East Coast to the West Coast in mid-2021, the drone ship has only supported five booster recoveries. With the exception of an unusual East Coast Starlink launch in May 2021, Falcon 9 B1061 was also primarily tasked with supporting SpaceX’s West Coast launch manifest. With only one older pad — the SLC-4 complex at Vandenberg Space Force Base (VSFB) — available to SpaceX, the company’s West Coast Falcon launches are also considerably rarer than its East Coast missions.
SpaceX has also begun using the pad — which is in an optimal location for launching satellites into orbit around Earth’s poles — to launch multiple batches of Starlink satellites into more ordinary equatorial orbits, essentially increasing the capabilities of its two Florida launch sites.
Starlink 4-13 and 4-15 were more or less identical in this regard; both have launched 53 Starlink V1.5 satellites into LEO to continue to fill the fourth of five Starlink orbital “shells” that will make up SpaceX’s first licensed constellation. Since SpaceX began Airplane 4 (or Group 4) launches in November 2021, the company has now flown 15 missions that have carried a total of 860 Starlink V1.5 satellites into orbit. With the exception of a fluke related to a solar storm that destroyed nearly all of one satellite launch, all but 8 remain operational in orbit. According to independent tracking by astronomer Jonathan McDowell, about 300 Starlink Group 4 satellites have reached operational orbits, while some 500 more are raising their orbits or waiting for the right time to do so.
As of May 2022, the first round or “group” of SpaceX’s first Starlink constellation has approximately 1,500 operational Starlink satellites out of a nominal 1,584. If all Group 4 satellites currently in orbit become operational, SpaceX has approximately 770 other satellites or 15 launches to go to complete the shell (17 to complete shell 1 and shell 4). If SpaceX maintains its current six-month launch cadence of a Starlink mission every ~11 days, SpaceX’s first Starlink constellation could have around 3,400 functioning satellites in orbit and be more than three-quarters complete by the end of 2022.
SpaceX, by all appearances, fully intends to push its vehicles and manpower to the absolute limits in 2022 with the goal of performing up to 60 orbital launches. To launch Starlink 4-15, for example, SpaceX made an unprecedented decision to launch an all-new Falcon 9 booster on the internal mission, demonstrating how its customers have embraced reuse. and how the company wants to expand its fleet of Falcon 9 boosters as quickly as possible.
After Starlink 4-13 and 4-15, SpaceX has completed 20 launches in the first 19 weeks of 2022 and has two more launches scheduled for the last two weeks of May.