Wednesday Starlink Launch to Kick Off Record-Setting Month for SpaceX

The B1051 core launches its maiden mission in March 2019 to deliver SpaceX’s Demo-1 Crew Dragon to the International Space Station (ISS). Photo Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace

Only days after seeing off its first mission for the U.S. Space Force, SpaceX again stands primed to conduct as many as four Falcon 9 flights in July, with two dedicated Starlink/rideshares, South Korea’s first dedicated military communications satellite and an Argentinian Earth-observation platform waiting in the wings to make this its busiest month on record. Although the Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered launch services provider has scored three launches in a single calendar month on five occasions since June 2017—most recently just last month—it has yet to push this to four. Hopes of achieving four launches in June 2020 ultimately came to nothing as weather and time conspired against SpaceX, but July may see dozens of satellites put into orbit by at least two veteran Falcon 9 cores, possibly including a quickfire turnaround of the booster used to loft Dragon Endeavour and NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken in May.

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First up at 4:15 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, 8 July, will be the several-times-delayed Starlink/BlackSky rideshare mission originally planned for late last month. Its previously-flown B1051 core executed a customary Static Fire Test on historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on 24 June, with high hopes that it would fly on the 26th. It therefore came as a surprise on the afternoon of what should have been launch day, three hours prior to T-0, when SpaceX declared that it was standing down. Citing the need for “additional time for pre-launch checkouts”, the firm stressed that both booster and payload were healthy, and attention turned instead to neighboring Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, where on 30 June SpaceX successfully flew its second National Security Space Launch (NSSL) and its first flight for the U.S. Space Force.

The Falcon 9 core for Wednesday is only the third in history to log a fifth mission. Assuming success, it will have flown five times in just 16 months, a far shorter timeframe than the 20-21 months achieved by its B1048 and B1049 siblings to do likewise. It first launched in March 2019 to deliver SpaceX’s historic Demo-1 Crew Dragon to the International Space Station (ISS), then went on to loft Canada’s three-satellite Radarsat Constellation Mission (RCM) the following summer and a pair of Starlink batches in late January and 22 April 2020.

A batch of 60 Starlink low-orbiting internet communications satellites is deployed from the Falcon 9 upper stage last month. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Primary payload for Wednesday’s mission is 57 low-orbiting Starlinks, marking the tenth batch of these flat-packed internet communications satellites to have been launched atop a Falcon 9 since May of last year. But the mission also carries a pair of “rideshare” passengers, both devoted to Earth observations and flown on behalf of Spaceflight Industries, Inc.’s terrestrial imaging customer, BlackSky.

Spaceflight previously flew its SSO-A SmallSat Express payload—a record-setting 64 cubesats and smallsats—atop a dedicated Falcon 9 in December 2018. This haul of satellites ran the gamut in terms of objectives, from military to civilian technology demonstrators and communications and data-relay pathfinders to life sciences, terrestrial observations and radar-imaging, space science, solar physics and astrophysics.

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Two of those satellites were the BlackSky Global-1 and Global-2 payloads, which can provide ground-imaging resolution as fine as 3.3 feet (1 meter) from an altitude of 310 miles (500 km). A further two satellites, Global-3 and Global-4, were launched in June last year atop an Elektron-KS booster from Onenui Station on New Zealand’s North Island. And the 120-pound (56 kg) Global-5 and Global-6 will ride to space on Thursday, the fifth and sixth satellites in what BlackSky anticipates will eventually evolve into a 60-strong constellation with the capacity to rapidly revisit the same locations on Earth.

According to Spaceflight, the BlackSky rideshare payload is dubbed SXRS-1, “to signify its first rideshare with Starlink” and outlined that the increased tempo of these SpaceX missions “provides smallsat customers with a new, reliable and routine launch option”. It noted that it had designed “the adapters and harnessing” for the rideshare payloads and executed their integration into the launch vehicle. “SpaceX has proved schedule consistency and launch reliability through its Starlink missions, even during this unprecedented time, and we are eager to offer it as a launch option to our customers,” said Curt Blake, president and CEO of Spaceflight. “We seek to maximize capacity on every launch because any space available is an opportunity for our customers to complete their missions.”

South Korea’s first dedicated military communications satellite, ANASIS-II, is prepared for transfer from Airbus Defence & Space’s cleanroom in Toulouse, France, to begin its journey to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Photo Credit: Airbus Defence & Space

Chomping on the heels of the Starlink/BlackSky rideshare, with launch possibly as early as 14 July, will be another major external client for SpaceX, in the form of South Korea’s ANASIS-II secure military communications satellite, being flown on behalf of the Korean Agency for Defense Development (ADD). Delivered to Cape Canaveral earlier in June from prime contractor Airbus Defence & Space in Toulouse, France, this large satellite is based upon the EuroStar-3000 bus architecture, boasting high flexibility, enhanced payload accommodations, propulsion options ranging from chemical to all-electric and described as “a reference for challenging high-power missions”. Originally earmarked for development by Lockheed Martin, its construction was reportedly subcontracted out to Airbus in 2016.

When it enters operational service, ANASIS-II will join over 50 EuroStar-3000 satellites in geostationary orbit. These powerful satellites have previously flown aboard Russian Proton-M and Zenit boosters, Europe’s Ariane 5, the Japanese H-IIA and three times aboard SpaceX vehicles since March 2017. They reportedly have a launch mass ranging from 9,900 pounds (4,500 kg) to 13,200 pounds (6,000 kg) and are equipped with dual solar arrays with a total wing span of up to 150 feet (45 meters) and 50-90 Ku-band and C-band transponders.

Spaceflight Industries, Inc.’s SpaceX Rideshare-1 (SXRS-1) mission emblem. Image Credit: Spaceflight Industries, Inc.

Although unconfirmed by SpaceX, it has been reported that the ANASIS-II mission may fly atop the B1058 Falcon 9 core, making its second flight a mere six weeks after launching NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on 30 May for the long-awaited Dragon Endeavour voyage to the International Space Station (ISS). If this turns out to be the case, B1058 stands in pole position to establish a new record for the shortest interval between any two launches by a singular Falcon 9 booster, eclipsing current champion B1056 which set only 62 days and 15 hours between two of its launches in December 2019 and its untimely end-of-mission demise in February 2020. The new record, if achieved, offers ample demonstration that SpaceX continues to bring down the turnaround times between its vehicles.

July’s two remaining missions remain somewhat more nebulous in terms of what Falcon 9 hardware—whether previously-flown or wholly new—they will use, although it has been suggested that both are likely to ride veteran boosters. This may even include the return of B1049 as the first Falcon 9 core to fly a sixth time. Argentina’s long-delayed SAOCOM-1B (Satélite Argentino de Observación COn Microondas, Spanish for Argentine Microwaves Observation Satellite) is targeted to fly at some point between 25-30 July from SLC-40, with another Falcon 9 ferrying another another batch of Starlinks at month’s end. Since both of these missions are earmarked to fly from SLC-40, however, it seems unlikely that both can be accomplished in such a short timeframe.

The SAOCOM payload undergoes testing before shipment to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Photo Credit: INVAP

Developed by Argentina’s national space agency, the Comisión Nacional de Actividades Espaciales (CONAE), SAOCOM-1B follows on the heels of its predecessor, SAOCOM-1A, which launched in October 2018 on the first Falcon 9 mission to achieve a return-to-launch-site touchdown at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The SAOCOM twins will operate from near-polar orbit at a mean altitude of 385 miles (620 km) and employ powerful L-band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) for soil-moisture mapping, terrain modeling and volcanology. They also seek to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the flatlands of Argentina’s central Pampas region, which supports the cultivation of soybean, wheat, corn and sunflower, as well as sorghum, barley and potatoes. It is also a major cattle-rearing area. Droughts in early 2018 greatly sapped its grain exports and the arrival of these satellites cannot be more timely for the suffering Argentine economy.

Identical to its twin, SAOCOM-1B weighs 6,600 pounds (3,000 kg) and will function in orbit for five years. Its L-band SAR resolution ranges from 330 feet (100 meters) down to just 23 feet (7 meters) and its imaging swaths can cover an area of between 30 miles (50 km) and 250 miles (400 km). During the second half of 2019, it underwent extensive testing of its solar arrays and its radar antenna at prime contractor INVAP’s facility in San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina, prior to shipment via truck convoy and Antonov An-124 airlifter to Cape Canaveral in February 2020. Launch was originally targeted for 30 March, but was placed on “indefinite hold” by SpaceX as the worldwide march of the COVID-19 coronavirus applied a stranglehold on both the payloads and the launch services industry.

SAOCOM-1A is encapsulated within the two halves of its payload fairing at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., in September 2018. Its twin, SAOCOM-1B, will follow a similar protocol. Photo Credit: CoNAE/Facebook

Riding alongside SAOCOM-1B is the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) Navigation and Occultation Measurement Satellite (GNOMES)-1, operated by Denver, Colo.-based PlanetiQ, which aims to place a constellation of up to 20 microsats into orbit by 2023 for high-definition weather forecasting, climate research and space weather monitoring. GNOMES-1 will be equipped with PlanetiQ’s in-house-built Pyxis Global Positioning System (GPS) radio occultation payload for atmospheric sounding and is expected to operate at an altitude of almost 500 miles (800 km), inclined 72 degrees to the equator.

Also flying as a rideshare payload is Capella-2, part of a network of small satellites which will use X-band SAR to provide high-contrast, low-noise and high-resolution imagery as fine as 1.6 feet (0.5 meter). Provided by San Francisco, Calif.-headquartered Capella Space, it is a larger and more capable successor to the Capella-1 satellite, which flew aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 on the SSO-A SmallSat Express rideshare mission in late 2018. To achieve its high imaging resolution, Capella-2 utilizes a 11.5-foot-diameter (3.5-meter) mesh reflector antenna.  

Launched in batches of 60, it is expected that thousands of Starlink low-orbiting internet communications satellites will be in space by the mid-2020s. Photo Credit: SpaceX/Twitter

Three SkySat rideshare satellites (numbered 19, 20 and 21) will also fly on the end-of-month Starlink mission. Provided by San Francisco-based Planet Labs, Inc., a total of 18 of these CubeSat-based SkySats launched between November 2013 and just last month as part of an effort to develop flexible, inexpensive satellites to perform daily Earth imaging to monitor ongoing change and pinpoint evolving trends. Roughly the same size as a mini-fridge, the SkySats’ sub-meter-resolution capabilities allow them to image objects which directly impact the global economy, including terrain, cars and shipping containers. They can capture video clips lasting up to 90 seconds at 30 frames per second and their high-definition imagery is expected to aid understanding of the movement of goods and people to afford a more “visual” perspective of supply chains, shipping, industrial activity and humanitarian relief efforts. According to Planet Labs, the optical instrumentation of the most recent SkySats has a resolution of less than 28 inches (72 cm). 

The new SkySats will benefit from a rapid revisit capability to capture imagery of singular locations on Earth up to 12 times per day and a global average of seven revisits per day. It is anticipated that rapidly revisiting the same locations on Earth will allow consumers to better fulfil business and mission needs by affording shorter intervals between images to understand and properly characterize human-driven changes or unanticipated events, as well as increasing the chance of getting a cloud-free image or an image of specific shadow angles that could be important for analysis.

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