SpaceX Resumes Vandenberg Launches, Looks Ahead to Record-Breaking 2022

SpaceX’s record-tying sixth Falcon 9 of 2022 from Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., punches through the murk. Photo Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX is already heading squarely towards its most-flown year on record, with 2022 thus far having averaged one Falcon 9 launch per week. But late Sunday, as its 25th flight out of Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., took flight, it also set its sights on a record-setting haul of missions out of the mountain-ringed West Coast launch site.

Video Credit: AmericaSpace

Veteran core B1063—a dedicated “Vandenberg Falcon” which has now launched five of her six flights out of Vandenberg—rose smoothly from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-4E at 6:39 p.m. PDT, laden with 46 Starlink internet communications satellites, bound for low-Earth orbit. It was the sixth Falcon 9 mission of the year out of Vandenberg, tying with 2018 for the highest number of SpaceX flights on record.

In readiness for Sunday’s mission, the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Of Course I Still Love You”—which transferred to Vandenberg last summer after successfully recovering 44 Falcon 9 cores off the East Coast between April 2016 and June 2021put to sea from the Port of Long Beach on 7 July, bound for a position about 400 miles (640 kilometers) downrange in the Pacific Ocean. And with last night’s mission, OCISLY has now scored six on-point recoveries off the West Coast, making it the first of SpaceX’s drone ships to log a 50th successful Falcon 9 landing.

Sunday night’s launch was the second Falcon 9 flight of July, following the 53-strong Starlink 4-21 mission out of Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla., just last week. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

Included on that record-setting list of safely retrieved boosters off the East Coast are the first Falcon 9 to fly a second mission in March 2017, the center core from an April 2019 Falcon Heavy launch and the rocket which lifted NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to space on their historic Demo-2 voyage to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard Dragon Endeavour in May 2020. Transferred last summer to the West Coast, OCISLY saw her first West Coast service last September and has welcomed back six missions, including the Falcon 9 which lifted NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) to the Didymos/Dimorphos binary system last November.

And the booster slated for Sunday night’s mission has an accomplished history of her own. B1063 is one of few members of the Falcon 9 fleet to have alternated missions between the West and East Coasts and back again. She first flew out of Vandenberg in November 2020 to deliver the NASA-led Sentinel-6A Michael Freilich radar-imaging oceanography satellite into low-Earth orbit, before relocating briefly to Florida to launch a 60-strong “stack” of Starlinks in May of 2021.

Vandenberg’s trademark murkiness created an eerie optical effect for Sunday’s launch. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Returned last summer to Vandenberg, she supported last November’s DART launch and two more Starlink flights in February and May 2022. In doing so, she became the first Falcon 9 to record a third launch from the West Coast and currently sits as the only booster to have flown as many as five times out of Vandenberg.

Following Sunday night’s spectacular 6:39 p.m. PDT launch, B1063 powered uphill for the first 2.5 minutes of ascent, before separating from the stack and heading back to alight on the deck of OCISLY. The single Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the second stage then ignited for a customary six-minute “burn” to deliver the 46-strong Starlink payload to orbit.

For the opening seconds of ascent, until the Falcon 9 broke through the cloud deck, only a tongue of flame from its Merlin 1D+ engine suite was visible. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Deployment occurred a little more than an hour after launch. These satellites are aiming for a 97.6-degree-inclination orbit and form the initial members of the third “shell” of Starlinks, which will reside at an altitude of about 200 miles (320 kilometers).

It marked the sixth Vandenberg mission of 2022, following hard on the heels of the classified NROL-87 and NROL-85 payloads—flown on behalf of the National Reconnaissance Office—in February and April. Added to that list, SLC-4E also saw off a pair of Starlink missions in February and May.

Sunday’s mission marked the fifth Starlink payload to be lifted out of Vandenberg since September of last year. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Although only halfway through the year, that already ties 2022 with 2018 on six Falcon 9 launches from the West Coast. Looking ahead, SpaceX envisages as many as six more flights before the New Year’s Eve bell tolls out 2022.

The Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered launch services provider reveals precious little in terms of a definitive flight manifest. But its raft of missions in the second half of the year are expected to include a pair of “passive” SARah reflector satellites, flying for Germany, to join the SARah-1 radar-imaging surveillance satellite, launched last month.

Two-and-a-half minutes into Sunday evening’s flight, B1063 separated to begin her return to Earth (left pane). Meanwhile, the Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the second stage prepared to come alive (right pane) for a six-minute “burn” to deliver the 46-strong Starlink stack to orbit. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Added to that list is the September inaugural 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 for an estimated total value of $150.45 million. 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”, plus Wide Field of View (WFOV) infrared sensors for hypersonic missile tracking.

Also in the second half of 2022, a Falcon 9 is due to deliver four WorldView Legion satellites to Sun-synchronous orbit for Westminster, Colo.-based Earth imagery provider DigitalGlobe. This second batch of the Maxar-built Legion is expected to double DigitalGlobe’s capacity to gather the world’s highest-resolution geospatial imagery by resolving surface details as small as 12 inches (30 centimeters).

B1063 completes the sixth mission of her career and her own record-setting fifth flight out of the West Coast with a touchdown on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Of Course I Still Love You”. Photo Credit: SpaceX

And later in the year, another Falcon 9 is set to lift the NASA-led Surface Water Ocean Topography (SWOT) mission to examine the changeability of surface water bodies over time. That list does not include an expected ramping-up of Starlink launches to expand SpaceX’s Shell 3 capability in low-Earth orbit.       

With two missions now completed in July, attention now turns to historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, where another Falcon 9 is set to launch the CRS-25 Cargo Dragon to the ISS on Thursday. Delayed since early June following an issue pertaining to a possible monomethyl hydrazine leak in the Cargo Dragon’s Draco thrusters, liftoff is targeted for 8:44 p.m. EDT Thursday.

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