With the dust newly settled from yesterday’s record-setting Starlink/SkySat mission, which marked the first time a commercial, orbital-class booster had logged a sixth flight, SpaceX stands ready for the 100th rocket launch in its history as soon as Thursday, 27 August, laden with Argentina’s long-awaited SAOCOM-1B Earth-observation satellite and a pair of “rideshare” payloads. On Tuesday, Argentina’s national space agency—the Comisión Nacional de Actividades Espaciales (CoNAE)—announced that the satellite had completed functional tests and been encapsulated inside the bullet-like payload fairing which will ride atop the 230-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9. SAOCOM-1B will join its twin brother, SAOCOM-1A, launched two years ago, in providing detailed Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) coverage of the Home Planet.
The SAOCOM twins (the acronym denotes “Satélite Argentino de Observación COn Microondas”, Spanish for “Argentine Microwaves Observation Satellite”) have been over a decade in development. According to the government-owned INVAP aerospace corporation, which built them on behalf of CoNAE, the project got underway in 2007. Launch contracts between CoNAE and SpaceX were inked in April 2009, with SAOCOM-1A and SAOCOM-1B originally targeted to fly a year apart in 2010-2011. However, both missions suffered from extensive delay.
Finally, in October 2018, SAOCOM-1A successfully launched from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., with an expectation that SAOCOM-1B would do the same, before it was ultimately switched to historic Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. In doing so, SAOCOM-1B will be an extremely rare case of a launch into near-polar orbit from the Space Coast.
The SAOCOM-1B hardware originates from all over Argentina. Like its 2018-launched predecessor, the satellite “bus” comes from Bariloche, the solar panels from Buenos Aires and the giant SAR antenna from Córdoba. It is part of an international campaign to image the Home Planet with powerful L-band (1.275 GHz) SAR. The program folds into the joint Italian-Argentine Sistema Italo Argentino de Satélites para la Gestión de Emergencias (SIASGE) emergency management network, which also features collaboration from NASA and the European, Italian and Canadian space agencies. SIASGE will eventually comprise at least ten satellites, to be augmented by the SAOCOM-2A and SAOCOM-2B birds by the middle of the 2020s.
SAOCOM-1B weighs around 3,500 pounds (1,600 kg), one of the largest satellites of its kind ever built in the Southern Hemisphere, and is dominated by the large L-band full polarimetric radar. This steerable, seven-paneled unit, which measures 33 feet (10 meters) long and 11.5 feet (3.5 meters) wide, will emit high-powered microwave pulses to conduct all-weather observations of Earth, as part of ongoing efforts to mitigate the effects of natural disasters. Together with SAOCOM-1A, it will be able to detect objects larger than about 23 feet (7 meters) across, with a “swath” range of 30-250 miles (50-400 km), and their infrared cameras will scrutinize the landscape “to prevent fire in deserted areas”.
When fully operational, SAOCOM-1B will support soil-moisture mapping—which carries significant hydrological implications in terms of flood-control, agriculture, climate-monitoring and human health—and, more broadly, terrain-modeling, measurements of terrain displacement and volcanology. The socio-economic needs of this mission include better understanding the characteristics of the low, flat lands 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. SAOCOM-1B data will be assimilated into crop-growing models to obtain improved soil-moisture profiles and better hydrological forecasts for agricultural applications.
Originally targeting an early 2020 launch, work to validate SAOCOM-1B for its mission entered high gear last summer, with deployment and electrical systems testing on the huge SAR antenna and the installation of the spacecraft’s thermal blankets. The satellite and its supporting hardware was trucked out of Bariloche and airlifted to the Cape in late February, aboard an Antonov An-124. All told, the load amounted to 84,000 pounds (38,000 kg). However, the worldwide march of the COVID-19 pandemic led to a decision on 24 March—only a week before the scheduled launch—that SpaceX was “going indefinite” and that the mission would be delayed. A new date between 25-30 July was established, although this eventually also moved to the right and settled in late August.
For SAOCOM-1B itself, this meant bringing the satellite out of a months-long hibernation. On 14 August, it was switched on for a series of functional tests and contingency procedures, according to Pablo Ordoñez, CoNAE’s head of integration, testing and launch operations for the mission. And on Tuesday, CoNAE tweeted imagery of the complete payload in the process of being encapsulated in the Falcon 9 fairing, a significant milestone on the road to the launch pad.
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 rode a Falcon 9 on the SSO-A SmallSat Express rideshare mission in late 2018. To achieve its imaging resolution, Capella-2 utilizes a 11.5-foot-diameter (3.5-meter) mesh reflector antenna.
And it promises to be an interesting end of the month, with SAOCOM-1B due to fly from the same pad as (and only nine days after) the Starlink/SkySat mission. Additionally, with United Launch Alliance (ULA) slated to deliver the heavyweight NROL-44 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office atop a Delta IV Heavy from the Cape’s SLC-37B on 26 August, the coming days promise to be a hive of activity on the Space Coast. The SAOCOM-1B mission will be SpaceX’s 100th rocket launch, marking the 92nd “single-stick” Falcon 9 flight since June 2010, together with five Falcon 1 missions between March 2006 and July 2009 and a trio of outings by the gargantuan, tripled-cored Falcon Heavy between February 2018 and June of last year. Peculiarly, however, it will also be SpaceX’s 101st manifested mission, if one also counts the hapless Amos-6, which was lost in a pre-launch explosion on the pad back in September 2016.
Looking beyond the record-setting SAOCOM-1B flight, other missions continue to stack up for SpaceX as 2020 enters its homestretch. The Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered launch services provider already has plans to fly Starlink batches as often as twice per month. Last week, NASA confirmed that it is targeting 23 October for the next Crew Dragon spacecraft—carrying Crew-1 Commander Mike Hopkins, Pilot Victor Glover and Mission Specialists Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi—on the first Post-Certification Mission (PCM-1) for a multi-month residency aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
And just last month, the fourth Block III Global Positioning System (GPS III-04) global positioning, timing and navigation satellite arrived at the Cape from prime contractor Lockheed Martin’s Waterton, Colo., facility, aboard a C-17 Globemaster III airlifter originating from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, Wash. Transportation was conducted by the U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC). GPS III-04 is scheduled to launch on 30 September.