SpaceX has completed its second back-to-back month to see as many as four Falcon 9 missions, following Friday’s successful launch of another batch of Starlink low-orbiting internet communications satellites out of Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif. Liftoff of the B1063 core—which, in addition to embarking on the fourth flight of its career, also becomes the first Falcon 9 to fly three times from the West Coast—took place at 9:12 a.m. PST from storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-4E. A little more than eight minutes later, B1063 pirouetted back home to alight smoothly on the deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Of Course I Still Love You”, situated some 400 miles (650 kilometers) off the California coast.
SpaceX’s launch campaign out of mountain-ringed Vandenberg looks set to increase significantly in 2022, with two missions already completed in the last three weeks. The highly secretive NROL-87 payload was lofted for the National Reconnaissance Office earlier this month, with an expectation that at least four more missions will also originate from the West Coast later this year.
The first launch of the Tranche 0 Transport and Tracking Layer for the Space Development Agency (SDA)—contracts for which were signed with SpaceX in January 2021 at an estimated total value of $150.45 million—is anticipated in September. This will form the basis of an eventual constellation of 300-500 low-orbiting experimental satellites to furnish ground-based warfighters with “assured, resilient, low-latency military data and connectivity worldwide”, together with Wide Field of View (WFOV) infrared sensors for hypersonic missile tracking.
Also in late summer, a Falcon 9 will deliver four WorldView Legion satellites to Sun-synchronous orbit for Westminster, Colo.-headquartered Earth imagery provider DigitalGlobe. This second batch of the Maxar-fabricated Legion is expected to double DigitalGlobe’s ability to gather the world’s highest-resolution geospatial imagery—resolving ground details as small as 12 inches (30 centimeters)—and triple the capacity available over the highest-demand areas.
And later in 2022, Falcon 9s will lift the NASA-led Surface Water Ocean Topography (SWOT) mission to measure the changeability of surface water bodies over time and the initial member of Germany’s SARah military surveillance constellation, equipped with powerful phased-array imaging radar. If achieved, this may just nudge Vandenberg’s total ahead of 2018 for the greatest number of Falcon 9 launches—six—ever attained on the West Coast in a single calendar year.
Before Friday’s launch, SpaceX had flown a total of 20 missions out of Vandenberg since its inaugural flight back in September 2013. Starting with Canada’s Cascade, Smallsat and Ionospheric Polar Explorer (CASSIOPE), Falcon 9 missions have also lifted 75 Iridium NEXT global mobile communications satellites, over a hundred Starlinks and a fleet of Earth-imaging, oceanography and scientific payloads, including NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) to the Didymos/Dimorphos binary asteroid system. Seven Falcon 9 cores have flown twice out of Vandenberg, including B1063 which on Friday became the first to log a third launch from the West Coast.
This particular booster core is one of few members of the Falcon 9 fleet to have alternated missions between the West and East Coasts and back again. First flown from Vandenberg in November 2020 to emplace the NASA-led Sentinel-6A Michael Freilich radar-imaging oceanography platform into low-Earth orbit, it subsequently was relocated to Florida to lift 60 Starlinks last May. It then returned to the West Coast to deliver DART on its lengthy trek out to the Didymos/Dimorphos system in November 2021, before being pressed back into service on Friday. It becomes the 11th booster to log a fourth flight.
In readiness for Friday’s launch attempt, the ASDS, “Of Course I Still Love You”—which has been the West Coast’s “dedicated” drone ship since last summer—put to sea on Wednesday, bound for a position about 400 miles (650 kilometers) off the California coast.
Launch occurred on time at 9:12 a.m. PST and the Falcon 9 powered smoothly uphill under the 1.5 million pounds (680,000 kilograms) of thrust from the nine Merlin 1D+ engines of her core stage. Stage separation came at 2.5 minutes into flight, after which B1063 began a textbook return to Earth, deftly controlled by entry and landing burns and her hypersonic grid-fins.
A little over eight minutes since liftoff, she was sitting silently on the deck of the ASDS, having wrapped up her third on-point landing on a drone ship. Her first flight in November 2020 had terminated with a touchdown on solid ground at Vandenberg’s Landing Zone (LZ)-4.
Meanwhile, the Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the Falcon 9’s second stage executed a six-minute “burn” to deliver Friday’s payload of 50 Starlink satellites to orbit. It was the fifth dedicated batch of Starlinks launched thus far in 2022, coming only days after B1058—“Bob and Doug’s” old booster from the historic Demo-2 mission—lifted 46 satellites from storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla., last Monday. And SpaceX has now logged four flights in both January and February, almost twice the number of launches that it had achieved by this time last spring.
Thus far in 2022 (and including Friday’s mission), a grand total of 243 Starlinks have been launched—including 193 from the East Coast—although a much-publicized geomagnetic storm in early February caused several dozen of these to fall prematurely back to Earth, burning up in the atmosphere. As a result, last Monday’s launch was the first to benefit from a pair of Merlin 1D+ burns and a correspondingly longer “coast” phase into a higher circular orbit. This led to a deployment of the Starlink “stack” at one hour into the mission, rather than the previously standard 15 minutes.
A similar strategy was adopted with today’s mission, which saw the Starlink stack deployed at 62 minutes after launch at an altitude of about 190 miles (310 kilometers).
Up next in March, at least two more Starlink missions are targeted to fly from SLC-40 and historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida in the coming weeks, before attention turns to Axiom Space’s long-awaited Ax-1 mission of Dragon Endeavour to the International Space Station (ISS). Originally targeted for February, additional work to prepare Endeavour—which is set to become the first SpaceX Crew Dragon to fly a third crewed mission—pushed this date back to 30 March.
Announced last spring, Ax-1 will deliver former NASA astronaut, seasoned ISS commander and America’s most experienced spacewalker Mike Lopez-Alegria and crewmates Larry Connor, Mark Pathy and Eytan Stibbe to the ISS for an approximately ten-day commercial mission. And only days after their return to Earth, on 15 April another Crew Dragon—as-yet-unnamed and making its first flight—is due to deliver NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren, Bob Hines and Jessica Watkins, together with Italy’s Samantha Cristoforetti, to the station to join Expedition 67. Theirs will be the first SpaceX crewed mission to launch on a four-times-flown core booster.