Elon Musk's SpaceX has delayed the next scheduled launch of its Falcon 9 rocket to at least February 21 for further testing of the rocket's fairing, the $6 million section at its tip that deploys the rocket's payload, Space.com reported.
The latest test of SpaceX's line of partially reusable rockets, the launch was supposed to deliver Spain's Paz radar imaging satellite as well as Starlink prototypes from Vandenberg Air Force Base on Sunday morning. Per the San Diego Union-Tribune, the rescheduled launch time of early Wednesday morning may result in a "pre-dawn contrail that could be visible from San Diego County."
Team at Vandenberg is taking additional time to perform final checkouts of upgraded fairing. Payload and vehicle remain healthy. Due to mission requirements, now targeting February 21 launch of PAZ.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) February 17, 2018
SpaceX said on Twitter that the extra time was necessary "to perform final checkouts of upgraded fairing," which could indicate that Musk is closing in on a way to recover that portion of the rocket for refurbishment and reuse. Per Space.com, experimental solutions have included parachutes and equipping recovery ships with metal arms that Musk has compared to a "catcher's mitt," with Musk saying that he expects to develop a solution to "fairing recovery in the next six months."
According to Space.com, other parts of the rocket are already recycled from prior missions, including a first-stage booster used to launch Taiwan's Formosat-5 satellite in August 2017. Per CNBC, accompanying Paz on the mission are two experimental Microsat satellites intended for a 20-month test of technology for Starlink, a proposed network of thousands of satellites that could deliver 5G-quality service to billions. SpaceX is not the first company with similar ambitions, CNBC noted:
Back in 2015, Facebook decided against spending up to $US1 ($1) billion on a satellite that would provide Internet to under-served regions in Africa and other continents. Instead, Facebook opted to lease broadband onboard Spacecom's AMOS-6 satellite, which was destroyed when a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded during fuelling before launch in 2016.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates helped fund Teledesic, in an effort to build low Earth satellites to provide Internet service. Yet Teledesic closed in 2002, after racking up more than $11 billion costs.
SpaceX's reusable rocket technology, which included the spectacular launch of its powerful Falcon Heavy (with Musk's Tesla Roadster on board) earlier this month, may have lowered the barrier to entry enough that such plans are now feasible. According to Space.com, the company has remained publicly silent about the Starlink prototypes but disclosed their presence on the Falcon 9 in Federal Communications Commission filings.