Apparent failed deorbit of the Starlink-18 Falcon 9 upper stage [UPDATED]

By SatTrackCam Leiden

On 4 March 2021, after several delays, SpaceX launched the 18th Starlink batch (Starlink-18 or V1.0-17). While the launch and deployment profile appears to have been similar to other recent Starlink launches, it appears that something went wrong with the Falcon 9 upper stage near the end of its mission.

On March 8th, Polish observer Adam Hurcewicz reported a bright, fast object in the orbital plane of this launch, passing a few minutes before the main Starlink "train". It was seen on subsequent nights and by other observers as well: the video above is from the early morning of March 9. At it's brightest, this fast moving object reportedly reaches mag -3. It does not appear to match a known object from earlier launches. It also didn't match supplementary TLE's for the Starlink-18 payloads from Celestrak (which are based on State Vectors from SpaceX). The Polish observers therefore speculated it was the Falcon 9 upper stage from the launch. 

But that would be against expectations. The Falcon 9 upper stage normally does not stay in orbit: it is de-orbitted soon after payload release, usually about 1.5 revolutions (about 2.5 hours) after launch. So if this object is the Falcon 9 upper stage, this suggests  something went wrong and it failed to deorbit.

The speculation that this object is the Falcon 9 Upper Stage can now be bolstered by additional information. The first orbital element sets for this Starlink launch have appeared on the CSpOC portal  Space-Track late yesterday (11 March), with catalogue numbers ranging from 47722 to 47786. And they show an extra object!

With Starlink launches, 64 objects are usually catalogued: 60 payloads and four 'Falcon 9 debris' pieces. The latter 'debris' pieces are the payload stack retaining rods: four metal rods which keep the satellite stack together on top of the upper stage. They are jettisoned upon payload release.

An elset for the Falcon 9 upper stage is usually not released by CSpOC: as it normally stays on-orbit for barely more than 1 revolution, it is not catalogued.

But this time, not 64 but 65 objects have been catalogued. The extra 65th object must be the Falcon 9 upper stage, and it indicates it stayed on orbit for more than a few revolutions. Which lines up with the observations by the Polish (and later also other) observers.

Although the 65 objects, at the moment of writing, do not have been individually ID-ed by CSpOC yet (all have the temporary designation "TBA - TO BE ASSIGNED"), the 60 payloads, four retaining rods and the upper stage as such can be clearly identified among them. The objects separate in 3 groups in terms of orbital altitude. The 60 payloads all have (for orbits with epoch 12 March) a perigee above 280 km. The four retaining rods have clearly lower orbits: their perigee is near 243-246 km and apogee near 268-278 km.

The 65th object, which by inference must be the Falcon 9 upper stage, is in a still lower orbit . It has the smallest semi-major axis of all of them with perigee near 237 km and apogee near 270 km. The orbit for this object, catalogue nr 47782 (2021-071BN) also closely matches the observations by the Polish observers.

So why is the Falcon 9 upper stage still on-orbit? It suggests of course that the deorbit went not as planned, i.e. it failed for some reason (e.g. the rocket engine refusing to restart).

That the Falcon 9 upper stage should have deorbitted on March 4, after 1.5 revolutions, is clear from the Navigational Warnings that were issued in connection to this launch. Navigational Warning HYDROPAC 695/21 delineates the usual elongated deorbit zone in the Indian Ocean familiar from earlier Starlink launches:

021948Z MAR 21
HYDROPAC 695/21(GEN).
SOUTHERN INDIAN OCEAN.
1. HAZARDOUS OPERATIONS, SPACE DEBRIS 041024Z TO 041326Z MAR, ALTERNATE 051004Z TO 051306Z MAR IN AREA BOUND BY 29-43S 060-07E, 24-55S 064-27E, 38-45S 084-30E, 45-12S 099-45E, 49-46S 119-13E, 50-42S 138-19E, 48-50S 156-44E, 51-46S 158-08E, 54-42S 148-32E, 56-20S 131-03E, 55-52S 107-50E, 49-11S 085-05E, 34-32S 064-13E.
2. CANCEL HYDROPAC 685/21.
3. CANCEL THIS MSG 051406Z MAR 21.

I have plotted the zones from the Area Warnings connected to the launch in this map, along with the groundtrack for the first 1.5 orbital revolutions. The large elongated red zone in the southern Indian Ocean is the planned deorbit area from Navigational Warning HYDROPAC 695/21:

click map to enlarge

The position of the reentry hazard zone indicates a reentry was planned around 10:55 UT (March 4), 1.5 revolutions (2h 30m) after launch, following a deorbit burn some 30 minutes earlier.

But the deorbit evidently did not happen as it should have: the upper stage is still orbiting as we speak, a week after launch. The issued Navigational Warning for the deorbit hazard zone strongly suggests this is not intentional.

So how long will the upper stage stay in orbit? The current orbit is low (237 x 271 km), and the object is large (16 x 3.66 meter, with a mass of 4.5 tons) so eventually the rocket stage will have an uncontrolled reentry, somewhere between latitudes 53 deg N and 53 deg S. 

A first assessment using both SatEvo and a GMAT simulation suggests that the reentry will probably happen in the last few days of March or the first few days of April.

UPDATE 14 March 2021:

CSpOC has now added identifications to the objects, and indeed object 47782 is now listed as "Falcon 9 RB"