A few minutes after midnight Sunday morning, SpaceX successfully launched a third Falcon 9 booster in just 36 hours, delivering a Globalstar-2 global mobile communications satellite and a possible classified payload for an undisclosed U.S. Government customer to orbit. The veteran B1061 core stage—making her ninth flight—rose from storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla., at 12:27 a.m. EDT Sunday, providing a spectacular middle-of-the-night viewing opportunity along the Space Coast.
But the success of tonight’s flight offered few insights into a peculiarly “light” mission, with Globalstar-2 weighing only around 1,500 pounds (700 kilograms) yet requiring a far-downrange Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) landing—as opposed to a Return to Launch Site (RTLS) at the Cape’s Landing Zone (LZ)-1—and with no mention given by SpaceX to any other payloads. This mission only appeared on the Falcon 9 manifest earlier in June, thanks to a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Request for Special Temporary Authority (STA) “to authorize launch vehicle communications for Mission 1575”.
In readiness for the launch, the ASDS “Just Read the Instructions” put to sea out of Port Canaveral last Tuesday, bound for a position about 410 miles (660 kilometers) offshore in the Atlantic Ocean. It marked an impressive turnaround for JRTI, which had earlier supported the far-downrange recovery of B1062 earlier this month, after launching Egypt’s Nilesat-301 communications satellite.
In fact, less than six days elapsed between the B1062 recovery and offload back at Port Canaveral and JRTI being back on-station for her second Falcon 9 core recovery attempt of June. Weather conditions for Sunday’s just-past-midnight launch were projected to be around 70-percent favorable, according to data issued by the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base.
“Showers and thunderstorms will be back into the forecast for Saturday through Monday,” it cautioned in a Friday morning update. “However, the late-night timing of the primary and backup launch windows will do us some favors, as most of the thunderstorm activity should be over with, leaving nocturnal cloud cover in its wake.” As a result, the principal issues are potential violations of the Cumulus Cloud Rule and Surface Electric Field Rule.
Supporting this morning’s launch was the nine-times-flown B1061, a booster most recently used less than 25 days ago to lift the 59-payload Transporter-5 mission from SLC-40. That positions her in second place behind sister B1062, whose 21-day turnaround between missions back in April marks the shortest interval between a pair of flights by the same orbital-class booster.
It also marks the fourth flight of B1061 this year alone, having also lifted the 40-payload Transporter-4 stack on April Fool’s Day and a 49-strong batch of Starlink low-orbiting internet communications satellites in February. But even 2022’s four missions comes on the heels of an already stellar career for B1061, which previously saw her launch not one, but two crews of humans to the International Space Station (ISS).
She first took flight in November 2020, launching Dragon Resilience and Crew-1 astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi, for the first U.S. crewed mission in the hours of darkness since the twilight of the Space Shuttle Program. Five months later, she lifted Dragon Endeavour and Crew-2 astronauts Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur, Aki Hoshide and Thomas Pesquet to orbit for a mission which, at 199 days, stands as the longest single flight by a U.S. crewed spacecraft.
Her human-hauling duties over, B1061 settled last summer into a regular routine as a payload lifter. She launched SiriusXM’s heavyweight SXM-8 broadcasting satellite last June, SpaceX’s CRS-23 Cargo Dragon to the ISS last August and NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) last December.
Listed by SpaceX as the “primary” payload aboard Sunday’s mission is a satellite “spare” formally known as Globalstar-2 M087 (FM15), which weighs around 1,500 pounds (700 kilograms) and is aimed for an operational orbital altitude of 875 miles (1,400 kilometers), inclined 52 degrees to the equator. Built upon Thales Alenia Space’s Extended LifeTime Bus (ELiTeBus), it forms part of a second-generation constellation of satellites provided by Covington, La.-based Globalstar, Inc., to furnish global digital, real-time voice and data communications traffic.
The mission was identified by Globalstar CEO Dave Kagan last month, as the organization published its First Quarter 2022 financial results. Mr. Kagan noted the progress of a $327 million satellite procurement agreement with Macdonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) in February, which is expected to see the launch of 17 third-generation Globalstars from 2025.
“These new satellites will ensure continuity of service to all of our existing and future subscribers, as well as other users of the network,” Mr. Kagan said. He added that “we also plan to launch our on-ground spare satellite in the coming months that will serve the same purpose”.
Liftoff of the Falcon 9 occurred on time at 12:27 a.m. EDT and B1061 powered smoothly into the night, a successful first-stage performance terminating as expected about 2.5 minutes into the flight. The core then separated from the stack to execute a smooth touchdown on the deck of the ASDS. Attention then turned to the Merlin 1D+ engine of the second stage, which was configured for no fewer than three “burns” on this mission.
The first burn ran for about seven minutes, after which the stack coasted for nearly an hour, ahead of a second burn, lasting just a handful of seconds. Another lengthy phase of coasting of over 40 minutes preceded the third burn, which again ran for only a few seconds, prior to the Globalstar-2 deployment a little under two hours after launch. No further indication was provided by SpaceX as to the presence (or absence) of additional payloads on the mission.
Up next are potentially two more missions to wrap up June as the second six-launch month in SpaceX’s history. Frequent flyer B1058—a booster which found fame in May 2020 when it rocketed Demo-2 and NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the ISS for a two-month stay—may fly a record-tying 13th mission as early as next weekend. And the month is due to end with the launch of the heavyweight SES-22 communications satellite, possibly as early as the 28th.