For the second time in January, a ten-times-flown Falcon 9 booster headed for space on Tuesday evening, laden with 49 Starlink low-orbiting internet communications satellites. Liftoff of the veteran B1060 core—which launched most recently last month—took flight from historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida at 9:02 p.m. EST.
A little more than eight minutes later, B1060 landed smoothly on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “A Shortfall of Gravitas” (ASOG), becoming the fourth Falcon 9 since last May to complete ten flawless missions. And with up to two more flights coming up, January may wind up as the first time that SpaceX has launched five times from the Space Coast in a single calendar month.
The year began on 6 January, when the ten-times-flown B1058 booster, originally used by astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on their historic Demo-2 launch in May 2020, rose from Pad 39A and lifted 49 Starlinks to orbit. And just last Thursday, the 105-spacecraft Transporter-3 rideshare mission took flight from neighboring Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
With Tuesday’s launch, B1060 thus kicked off SpaceX’s third mission in the first three weeks of 2022, greatly surpassing SpaceX’s achievement in the first three weeks of 2021, which the Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered organization went on to see its most-flown year to date.
Liftoff was originally targeted for 7:26 p.m. EST Monday, but despite an 80-percent probability of acceptable weather, SpaceX elected to hold out for the backup opportunity at 7:04 p.m. EST Tuesday. “With more favorable weather conditions for liftoff and booster recovery,” it tweeted Monday afternoon, “now targeting Tuesday, 18 January, for Falcon 9’s launch of Starlink satellites.”
In spite of Monday’s positive outlook, and a gradual tapering-off of rain showers and isolated thunderstorms, the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base noted a slight threat from liftoff winds. “A brisk day along the Space Coast will transition to a clear evening with winds slowly diminishing after sunset,” the 45th explained in its Monday afternoon update. “On Tuesday, high pressure will settle overhead, making for another chilly morning with low temperatures near 7 degrees Celsius (45 degrees Fahrenheit) at the Spaceport.
“Skies will continue to be mostly cloud-free and with winds becoming light and variable, making excellent weather conditions for a Tuesday evening launch attempt.” All told, the picture for Tuesday pledged a 95-percent chance of good conditions, dipping slightly to 90 percent on Wednesday, thanks to ancitipated showers and cumulus clouds.
In readiness for launch, the ASOG put to sea last Thursday, incidentally photobombing B1058 as it executed its first “land” landing at Landing Zone (LZ)-1 from the Transporter-3 mission. The drone ship took position some 406 miles (654 kilometers) downrange of the launch site. And late Sunday, the 230-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 booster was rolled from the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) and up the ramp to Pad 39A.
Before tonight’s launch, B1060 had logged nine successful missions. She entered service on 30 June 2020, lifting the third Block III Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation and timing satellite towards Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) on behalf of the U.S. Space Force.
Nine weeks later, she flew a second time—cementing a record for the then-shortest interval between a pair of Falcon 9 launches from the Space Coast—and went on to log a third mission the following 24 October. Both were laden with 60-strong batches of Starlinks. Her third flight also marked the 100th successful launch of a Falcon-class rocket.
But B1060’s real record-setting credentials were concentrated into the first half of 2021. She flew SpaceX’s very first mission of the year on 7 January, with Turkey’s powerful Türksat 5A geostationary communications satellite, before being turned around in only 27 days to carry another 60-strong payload of Starlinks aloft last 4 February. This neatly eclipsed SpaceX’s previous launch-to-launch turnaround record for a single Falcon 9 booster of only 38 days and still stands tonight.
Wrapping up two more missions in March and April, B1060 became the first orbital-class rocket to fly four times in four consecutive calendar months. She then flew the 88-payload Transporter-2 mission last 30 June, on the one-year anniversary of her maiden voyage, and her most recent launch on 2 December carried a mixed bag of 48 Starlinks and a pair of BlackSky multispectral imaging satellites. All told, including tonight’s tenth flight, B1060 has lifted a grand total of 488 discrete satellites in a little over 18 months, including no fewer than 397 Starlinks.
Launch was originally targeted for an “instantaneous” window at 7:04 p.m. EST, but SpaceX opted to postpone until a second instantaneous window at 9:02 p.m. EST. No reason was given for the two-hour slip. Under the power of her nine Merlin 1D+ engines, B1060 roared smoothly into the darkened Florida sky, burning furiously for the first 2.5 minutes of ascent before separating from the stack.
Then, with the grace of a gymnast and the nimble motions of a dancer, she commenced a controlled descent back to Earth, alighting on the deck of ASOG about eight minutes after launch. Meanwhile, the Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the Falcon 9’s second stage executed a customary six-minute burn to inject the 49 flat-packed Starlinks into their requisite orbit. It was the 34th dedicated mission of production-design Starlinks since May 2019.
Two more launches sit on SpaceX’s books before the end of January. A second-generation COSMO-SkyMed radar-imaging Earth-observation satellite, designated CSG-2—built by Thales Alenia Space and operated by the Italian Space Agency (ASI)—is set to ride a Falcon 9 from SLC-40 as early as the 27th.
Contracts to fabricate the first two satellites of the series, CSG-1 and CSG-2, were signed with Thales in September 2015. Originally targeting launches in 2018, CSG-1 eventually rose to orbit atop a Soyuz-Fregat booster from Kourou, French Guiana, in December 2019.
The satellites weigh about 4,850 pounds (2,200 kilograms) and operate from a nominal altitude of 384 miles (619 kilometers), inclined 97.86 degrees to the equator. Their X-Band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) are engineered to acquire narrow-field images as fine as 2.6 feet (0.8 meters) and wide-field images down to 10 feet (3 meters), with still more precise resolutions available for defense customers. Contracts for two additional satellites—CSG-3 and CSG-4—were signed in December 2020.
Following the CSG-2 launch, attention will turn to neighboring Pad 39A for a Starlink launch as soon as the 29th. If both missions fly as planned, it will be the first time that as many as five Falcon 9s will launch from the Space Coast in a single calendar month.
SpaceX previously logged five flights in December 2021, launching two Starlink batches, Turkey’s powerful Türksat 5B communications satellites, NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) and the CRS-24 Cargo Dragon. However, four of those missions originated from the Space Coast and one from Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif.