In a peculiar twist, SpaceX scrubbed the launch of one Falcon 9 on Saturday morning as it hauled rocket another vertical on a neighboring pad for its customary pre-flight Static Fire Test. The four-times-flown B1051 core stage has been waiting in the wings since late June to deliver a payload of 57 Starlink internet communications satellites and a pair of BlackSky terrestrial imaging “rideshares” to low-Earth orbit, but due to a combination of weather, time and the need for additional checks has slipped behind two other missions. It was leapfrogged in the pecking order on 30 June by the U.S. Space Force’s high-profile Global Positioning System (GPS) III-03 mission and now looks set to be overtaken again on Tuesday, 14 July, as SpaceX aims to loft South Korea’s first dedicated secure military communications satellite—variously known as “ANASIS-II” or “K-MILSAT-1”—towards an eventual spot in geostationary orbit atop a record-setting Falcon 9.
Originally scheduled to occur in late June, ahead of the third Global Positioning System (GPS) Block III payload for the U.S. Space Force, a combination of time and an iffy weather outlook ultimately conspired against B1051. Blackened and scarred from its four prior ascents and high-speed re-entries, it was trundled horizontally out to historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida and completed a customary Static Fire Test of its nine Merlin 1D+ first-stage engines on the 24th.
However, expectations that the mission might fly as soon as the 26th came to nought, when SpaceX announced—a mere three hours before the targeted T-0—that a scrub had been called. It cited the need for “additional time for pre-launch checkouts” and stressed that both the Falcon 9 and its multi-faceted payload remained in good health.
With the high-priority GPS III-03 mission successfully concluded from neighboring Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on 30 June, the Starlink/BlackSky flight re-entered first place in the launch pecking order, initially targeting 8 July. That attempt was ultimately called off after the commencement of fueling, and with only a few minutes remaining in the countdown, as the intractable Florida weather closed in.
Curiously, although SpaceX noted that the weather was the driving factor in the scrub, it added that it would continue counting down to T-1 minute “for data collection”. That produced a rather odd state of affairs, as clocks continue to tick toward a launch that everyone knew would not come to pass. Another attempt to launch on Saturday, 11 July, was also called off, less than two hours before T-0, with SpaceX citing the need to “allow more time for checkouts”.
At almost the same point, the previously-flown B1058 core stage—blackened and scarred from one previous high-energy launch, re-entry and landing—was trundled out to SLC-40 on Saturday for the customary Static Fire Test of its nine Merlin 1D+ engines. This was successfully completed shortly after the Starlink/BlackSky scrub and SpaceX reported that it was officially aiming for Tuesday, 14 July, to launch ANASIS-II.
It was also clarified, as suspected, that ANASIS-II will ride the very same Falcon 9 which launched Dragon Endeavour and “Bob and Doug’s Excellent Adventure” to the International Space Station (ISS) back on 30 May. This may afford astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley a chance to view from orbit their old booster taking flight a second time.
If the mission launches on time on Tuesday, it will therefore set a new launch-to-launch record of just over six weeks, not only for a Falcon 9 core, but for any reusable orbital-class vehicle. Even NASA’s now-retired Space Shuttle Atlantis—which logged just 54 days between two launches late in 1985—falls far short of the 45 days that B1058 will secure in the event of an on-time Tuesday liftoff.
The current SpaceX record-holder is B1056, which flew four missions between May 2019 and last February. Most recently, it set a record of just over 62 days between its final flights in December 2019 and its untimely end-of-mission demise in February 2020. The new record, if achieved, provides an ample demonstrator that SpaceX continues to gradually bring down the turnaround times between its vehicles.
According to the 45 th Weather Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base in its L-3 update issued Saturday, the outlook for Tuesday’s attempt looks troubled at best, with no better than a 50-50 chance that Mother Nature will co-operate in time for T-0. “The trough of low pressure that extends down the eastern seaboard and across Florida will remain nearly stationary through early next week, resulting in continued unsettled weather,” it noted. “Showers and thunderstorms are likely each day in this pattern, especially during the afternoon and early evening.”
Although the trough is expected to erode by mid-week, with a reduced possibility of thunderstorms, the 45th explained that a launch late in the “window” on Tuesday and the backup date of Wednesday, 15 July, promises to offer marginally more favorable conditions. Principal weather concerns are a possible violation of the Cumulus Cloud Rule and Surface Electric Field Rule.
Reportedly carrying a launch mass in the order of between 9,900 pounds (4,500 kg) and 13,200 pounds (6,000 kg), ANASIS-II—also identified in other sources as K-MILSAT-1—is built upon Airbus’ EuroStar-3000 satellite “bus” architecture and is being flown on behalf of the Korean Agency for Defense Development (ADD).
Delivered to Cape Canaveral earlier in June from prime contractor Airbus 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 subcontracted out to Airbus in 2016, due to difficulties pertaining to cost.
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 Japanes H-IIA and three times aboard SpaceX vehicles since March 2017, including the first reuse of a Falcon 9 core. They reportedly carry dual solar arrays with a total wing span of up to 150 feet (45 meters), together with 50-90 Ku-band and C-band transponders.
It remains to be seen where the long-delayed Starlink/BlackSky mission will fit into the evolving launch picture for July. As previously detailed by AmericaSpace, there appeared to be a possibility that a record-setting four launches might be attempted this month, although in light of two back-to-back scrubs that would now seem to be a tall order. Certainly, external customers will tend to take priority over SpaceX’s internet Starlinks. After ANASIS-II, the Hawthorne, Calif.-based firm has SAOCOM-1B planned for later in July. This is the second of two Argentinian radar-imaging platforms for Earth observations—chomping on the heels of SAOCOM-1A, also launched via Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., back in October 2018—and is presently targeted for 25-30 July, having been “indefinitely” delayed since March by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.