In what SpaceX anticipates being its most-flown year yet out of Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., a three-times-used Falcon 9 booster successfully delivered Germany’s long-delayed SARah-1 radar-imaging surveillance satellite to orbit early Saturday. The mountain-ringed West Coast launch site reverberated to the roar of nine Merlin 1D+ engines—totaling 1.5 million pounds (680,000 kilograms) of thrust—as the seasoned B1071 core went airborne from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-4E at 7:19 a.m. PDT. It marked SpaceX’s 25th flight of 2022 and places the Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered launch services provider well on course to accomplishing its stated goal of 60 missions by year’s end.
And B1071 is certainly earning a name for itself as a “Vandenberg Falcon”, having been introduced to the SpaceX fleet in early February, when it launched the highly classified NROL-87 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office. Ten weeks later, it completed its second mission, lifting NROL-85 to orbit.
With this morning’s third launch, B1071 becomes the second most-flown Falcon 9 from the West Coast, after her sister B1063 which logged four flights out of Vandenberg between November 2020 and last month. Vandenberg has been utilized with relative sparseness by SpaceX over the years, following its maiden Falcon 9 flight to loft Canada’s Cascade, Smallsat and Ionospheric Polar Explorer (CASSIOPE) science satellite back in September 2013 and a second launch in January 2016 to deliver the joint NASA/NOAA Jason-3 ocean altimetry mission to orbit.
The tempo picked up a year later, with five missions in 2017, six in 2018 and two in 2019. These successfully lifted 75 Iridium NEXT global mobile communications satellites, in eight “batches”, together with Taiwanese and Argentinian Earth-imaging satellites, Spain’s first reconnaissance satellite, the multi-payload SmallSat Express and Canada’s three-spacecraft Radarsat constellation.
More recently, in November 2020 a single Falcon 9 carried the Sentinel-6A Michael Freilich Earth-observation satellite, whilst a pair of missions last year saw the delivery of Vandenberg’s first batch of Starlink low-orbiting internet communications satellites and the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) payload, bound for a future encounter with the deep-space asteroid Didymos and its tiny companion, Dimorphos.
Including this morning’s SARah-1 launch, SpaceX has flown five times out of Vandenberg thus far in 2022, tying with 2017 for the second-highest number of launches, but falling just shy of the six missions achieved from the West Coast in 2018. The new B1071 core flew the classified NROL-87 and NROL-85 missions in February and April, whilst two other boosters lifted a total of 103 Starlinks to orbit in February and May.
All told, 13 Falcon 9 cores have risen from Vandenberg, supporting 24 missions from September 2013 to this morning. Last month, B1063 became the first Falcon 9 to fly four times from the West Coast, whilst today’s SARah-1 launch positions B1071 in second place with three missions. Six others have launched twice out of Vandenberg.
The focus of Saturday’s mission was the German SARah-1 radar-imaging surveillance satellite, equipped with a powerful phased-array Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR). Weighing around 4,000 pounds (8,900 kilograms), it will ascend to an operational altitude of 465 miles (750 kilometers), where it will be joined by two “passive” SARah reflector satellites later this year or perhaps early in 2023.
Contracts for the development of the three SARah satellites, supported by a pair of ground stations, were awarded by the German Government to the Bremen-based OHB technology corporation in July 2013, valued at 816 million euros ($850 million). It is a follow-on program from Germany’s five-satellite SAR-Lupe surveillance network, launched from Russia’s Plesetsk Cosmodrome between December 2006 and July 2008. OHB has primary responsibility for supplying the two passive SARah reflector satellites, whilst EADS Astrium—now part of Airbus Defence and Space—provides the “active” phased-array SARah-1 satellite.
“By linking these two radar technologies,” OHB noted in a news release, “it will be possible to substantially enhance the efficiency of the overall system.” Airbus added that the dual usage of passive and active antenna technologies by SARah will permit observations “regardless of the time of day or weather conditions”. It was added that the phased-array technology furnishes the advantages of very fast pointing and very flexible shaping of the antenna beam to delivery imagery in record time.
Original plans called for the SARah ground segment to be ready for operation by fall 2016 and for the system itself to be launched and ready for full operations by 2019, but the program has slipped inexorably to the right. Earlier this week, Airbus announced that SARah-1 had been transported from Friedrichshafen, Germany, to Vandenberg for pre-launch preparations. After SARah-1’s launch, the Friedrichshafen site will oversee the Launch and Early Orbit Phase (LEOP) as the satellite is commissioned into service.
B1071 took flight into characteristically foggy Vandenberg skies at 7:19 a.m. PDT Saturday and rose ponderously away from SLC-4E, before vanishing abruptly into the murk. Just as abruptly, the 230-foot-tall (70-meter) booster punched through the cloud layer and again became visible from about T+20 seconds.
Passing through the phase of maximum aerodynamic turbulence, or “Max Q”, a little over a minute into ascent, the nine Merlin 1D+ engines on the core stage burned hot and hard for the first 2.5 minutes of flight, before B1071 shut down and separated from the stack on time. This allowed the single Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the Falcon 9’s second stage to ignite for an undisclosed duration to deliver SARah-1 towards its intended orbital destination.
“At the request of our customer”, SpaceX noted, coverage of the launch was terminated shortly after the separation of the core stage.
Minutes later, B1071 emerged through sombre skies to alight at Landing Zone (LZ)-4 and marked the sixth pinpoint touchdown of a Falcon 9 on solid ground at Vandenberg since October 2018. But today’s landing formed part of an impressive wider picture, for it was the 125th safe recovery of a booster—whether a Falcon 9 or the center core or side-boosters of a Falcon Heavy—since December 2015.
Wrapping up its 25th launch of 2022, SpaceX now turns its attention back to storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla., where a nine-times-flown Falcon 9 is set to rise at 12:27 a.m. EDT Sunday. If achieved, it will set a new record for the shortest interval (only 36 hours and 18 minutes) between three back-to-back Falcon 9 missions, eclipsing the 67 hours set during a previous three-launch salvo last January/February.
Aboard Sunday’s mission will be a Globalstar-2 global mobile communications satellite and a classified payload for an undisclosed U.S. Government customer. Following launch, the Falcon 9 core is set to alight on the deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Just Read the Instructions”.