SpaceX drew nearer this morning to its 100th rocket launch, as a record-breaking Falcon 9 booster core roared aloft from historic Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., laden with more than five dozen small satellites bound for low-Earth orbit. Liftoff of the veteran B1049 first stage—the first Falcon 9 core to log a sixth mission—took place on time at 10:31 a.m. EDT Tuesday, 18 August. Within nine minutes, B1049 had again done its job and duly returned to Earth, blackened and scarred from another high-energy re-entry, to land smoothly on the deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) in the Atlantic Ocean. Meanwhile, her sparkling-new upper stage continued its upward climb to orbit to deliver 58 Starlink internet communications satellites for SpaceX and a trio of SkySat Earth-imaging satellites for Planet Labs, Inc.
It was SpaceX’s 14th launch of the year and its third in under a month. But perhaps more significantly, it edges the Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered launch services provider ever closer to the magical number of 100 successful space launches.
Today’s spectacular, mid-morning liftoff was the 91st overall flight of the “single-stick” Falcon 9 since its maiden voyage way back in June 2010, which, together with five earlier Falcon 1 missions between March 2006 and July 2009 and, more recently, three launches by the gargantuan, tripled-cored Falcon Heavy between February 2018 and June of last year, gives SpaceX a current tally of 99 successful launches. That means that the next Falcon 9 off the pad, currently targeted for late August to deliver Argentina’s SAOCOM-1B Earth-observation platform, promises to be the touchstone 100th flight in a little over 14 years.
In fact, as outlined in AmericaSpace’s preview article for today’s mission, 2020 has proven impressive not only for its flight rate, but also for its reusability statistics. Fourteen launches by this point in the year was previously bettered only in 2018, which scored 15 flights—including the maiden voyage of the Falcon Heavy—during its first eight months. And with an average rate thus far in 2020 of two missions per month, SpaceX stands in pole position to exceed its all-time personal best of 21 launches in a single calendar year by the time the midnight bell tolls on New Year’s Eve.
Currently on the books for the rest of the year are a smorgasbord of commercial, NASA, military and other clients, including more Starlink batches, a Falcon Heavy in the fall to loft the classified USSF-44 payload for the U.S. Space Force and Crew-1 astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi, the first Post-Certification Mission (PCM) of a Crew Dragon to the International Space Station (ISS).
Additionally, SpaceX continues to ramp up its reusability statistics. Since March 2017, a total of 17 Falcon 9 cores have flown twice, two have launched on three occasions, two others have done so four times and another pair have logged five missions. With today’s flight, B1049 stands alone in having launched six times.
And with B1048—the first booster to record a fifth launch—having been lost at the end of an otherwise successful final mission in March, only B1051, which flew its own fifth mission less than two weeks ago, stands primed to match the achievement of B1049. Two Falcon 9 cores have flown three times and another pair have each logged two launches in 2020 alone. And out of 14 Falcon 9 missions so far this year, all but two have done so atop previously-used cores.
Remarkably, the B1049 core has seen the entirety of its spaceflying action within the last two years. Having completed its initial testing campaign at SpaceX’s facility in McGregor, Texas, it was transported to the Space Coast and shortly before midnight on 9 September 2018 it launched from SLC-40 to deliver the heavyweight Telstar-18V communications satellite to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO). To date, this remains B1049’s only payload destined for a location at a geostationary altitude, some 22,600 miles (35,900 km) above the planet.
Following its first launch, the core returned to alight on the ASDS “Of Course I Still Love You”, before it was recycled—and transported cross-country—to SLC-4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., where it lofted the eighth and final set of Iridium NEXT low-orbiting communications satellites on 11 January 2019. Returning to the ASDS “Just Read the Instructions”, B1049 became only the second Falcon 9 core to launch and return to a drone ship landing on both the East and West Coasts of the United States.
With the completion of its first (and so far only) Vandenberg mission, B1049 was returned to Florida for its next four flights, all dedicated to expanding SpaceX’s proposed thousands-strong network of Starlink low-orbiting internet communications satellites. It next launched on 24 May 2019, the first full-scale test flight with 60 Starlinks, followed by further pairs of 60-strong batches earlier in 2020, on 6 January and 3 June, ahead of this morning’s mission.
B1049 flew the United States’ first orbital launches of both 2019 and 2020 and, most recently in June it also made the first East Coast landing of a Falcon 9 on the ASDS “Just Read the Instructions”, which had hitherto been deployed only for West Coast flights. By default, it is now the incumbent record-holder for the greatest number of ASDS landings by any Falcon 9 core, with four returns to OCISLY and two to JRTI.
Preparations for this morning’s mission entered high gear in the pre-dawn darkness of Monday, when the blackened B1049 and its sparkling second stage were rolled out of the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) to the SLC-40 pad surface and put through a customary Static Fire Test of the nine Merlin 1D+ first-stage engines. Successful completion of this milestone prompted the official notification from SpaceX that it was targeting Tuesday at 10:31 a.m. EDT for the launch, with weather initially expected to be around 70-percent-favorable, although by Monday afternoon the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base noted an upward trend to 80-percent-favorable.
It noted that showers and storms from a stalled frontal boundary across the region was expected to give way to finer conditions on Tuesday, but cautioned that that “the nearby front will bring a threat for morning showers and storms over the Atlantic near the Spaceport into the launch window”. As such, the only lingering issue was a potential violation of the Cumulus Cloud Rule, on account of the showers and storms, with the boundary itself predicted to lift northwards by Wednesday.
Liftoff occurred on time at 10:31 a.m. EDT and B1049 smoothly powered the Falcon 9 uphill, before separating as planned from the stack at 2.5 minutes into ascent. It then returned in a complex ballet of re-entry burns and hypersonic grid-fins to alight safely onto the deck of OCISLY, where—if SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s plan for Block 5 boosters to be capable of ten missions reaches fruition—it may yet be recycled for another launch.
In the meantime, the Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the upper stage burned for six minutes, during which time the bullet-like payload fairing was discarded. Then, starting at 12.5 minutes after launch, the SkySat-21, 20 and 19 satellites were deployed from their dispenser at 30-second intervals. They will form part of a constellation being built by Planet Labs, Inc., to provide improved imaging coverage and revisit capability of key geographic regions of the globe. It is expected that the SkySats will be able to capture imagery of singular spots on Earth up to 12 times daily and a global average of seven revisits per day.
In the meantime, a little under 46 minutes into today’s flight, the process of deploying the 58 Starlink satellites got underway. With this deployment, B1049 has directly helped deliver no fewer than 238 of these small internet communications satellites (more than a third of the current total) into low-Earth orbit to date.
With Argentina’s SAOCOM-1B Earth-observation satellite waiting in the wings for SpaceX’s planned 100th mission in late August, the potential for twice-monthly Starlink flights, and the launches of Crew-1, USSF-44, a pair of Sirius XM broadcasting satellites and perhaps two more Global Positioning System (GPS) Block III birds, it looks increasingly likely that SpaceX may surpass its 2018 record of 21 launches to close out this most unfortunate year of 2020 with a measure of success.