A three-times-used Falcon 9 booster rose smoothly from historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, late Tuesday, laden with dozens more Starlink internet communications satellites for emplacement into low-Earth orbit. The B1073 core—which was introduced into the Falcon 9 fleet earlier this year and previously flew two missions in mid-May and the end of June—took flight at 10:14 p.m. EDT, following a 3.5-hour delay due to upper-level winds. In wrapping up its second flight of August, SpaceX has now inserted more than 3,000 production-design Starlinks into orbit in a little more than three years.
Weather conditions for Tuesday’s launch attempt seemed generally favorable, with a 70-percent probability of a smile from Mother Nature, improving to 90 percent in the event of a 24-hour slip to Wednesday. “Primary launch-day conditions continue to look favorable for launch,” noted the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base in its L-1 update on Monday morning.
“However, light and veering upper-level flow has the chance to bring anvil clouds to the area and occasional onshore-moving Atlantic showers cannot be ruled out in this pattern,” it was added. “The primary concerns during Tuesday’s launch window are the Cumulus Cloud Rule and Anvil Cloud Rules.” A decrease of moisture and a corresponding drop in the likelihood of evening Atlantic showers were expected to contribute to a more promising outlook on Wednesday.
In readiness for last night’s launch, the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “A Shortfall of Gravitas”, put to sea from Port Canaveral early Saturday, bound for a position about 390 miles (630 kilometers) offshore in the Atlantic Ocean. Introduced to the East Coast drone-ship fleet in the summer of 2021, ASOG welcomed her first returning Falcon 9 core last August and with last night’s flight has now scored 18 booster landings. And that impressive haul involved only seven boosters, with ASOG having supported the return of one core on no less than four separate occasions.
Unlike many of her sisters in the Falcon 9 fleet, which came into 2022 already as seasoned flight-veterans, B1073 is one of only two brand-new cores—the second currently is stationed at Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif.—to have entered service since January. B1073 lifted 53 Starlink satellites, weighing a combined 35,800 pounds (16,250 kilograms), on 14 May, then heaved the powerful SES-22 geostationary communications satellite for Luxembourg-headquartered SES on 29 June. Both missions originated from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla.
Last night’s launch proceeded without incident, although the 6:57 p.m. EDT “instantaneous” window was missed due to concerns about excessive upper-level winds. A second instantaneous T-0 was established at 10:14 p.m. EDT and B1073 sprang from Pad 39A right on time, creating a spectacular light show in the early evening Florida sky, a couple hours after sundown.
The nine Merlin 1D+ first-stage engines powered the 230-foot-tall (70-meter) stack uphill for the first 2.5 minutes of the flight, after which the single Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the second stage burned for six minutes to pre-position the Starlink payload for deployment. The 52 satellites aboard last night’s mission are destined for insertion into an orbit at an altitude of 340 miles (550 kilometers), inclined 53.2 degrees to the equator.
Including this launch, a grand total of 3,007 “production-design” Starlinks have now been launched from the East and West Coasts of the United States since May 2019, including 1,065 having risen to orbit in 2022 alone. Just last month SpaceX began to assemble a third “shell” of Starlinks in a 97.6-degree-inclined orbit, flown out of Vandenberg.
As the Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine approached the end of its long burn, B1073 pirouetted smartly back to Earth and alighted on the deck of ASOG. In doing so, she wrapped up SpaceX’s 35th Falcon 9 mission of the year and its second of August.
The flight manifest for the remainder of the month remains unclear, although during the coverage of its most recent Vandenberg launch on 22 July it was noted that the next West Coast mission would occur within a couple weeks. It now appears that B1061—set to become only the fifth booster to log a tenth launch—will fly as soon as Friday afternoon, laden with dozens more Shell 3 Starlinks.
And with the forthcoming flight of Dragon Endurance and Crew-5 astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada of NASA, Japan’s Koichi Wakata and Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina not expected to fly until early October, it appears likely that missions in August’s second half will be devoted entirely to Starlink. Coming up in late September will be the initial members of the Tranche 0 Transport and Tracking Layer for the Space Development Agency (SDA), part of a flotilla of experimental satellites to furnish warfighters with “assured, resilient, low-latency military data and connectivity worldwide”.
Speaking last week, International Space Station (ISS) Program Manager Joel Montalbano noted that the Crew-5 launch—tentatively targeted for No Earlier Than (NET) 29 September—will likely move “a few days to the right”, into the early part of October. The booster earmarked for this flight incurred some damage whilst in transit between SpaceX’s facility in Hawthorne, Calif., and the Rocket Development Facility in McGregor, Texas.
Benji Reed, SpaceX’s director of crew mission management, explained that the booster apparently “came in contact with a bridge” during the Hawthorne-to-McGregor journey and sustained a “fairly minor incursion”. Following inspections, managers opted to replace the composite interstage, before pressing into a “very robust process of analysis and test”.
The booster was due to be put through hot-fire and proof-pressure tests last week. Significantly, Mann will become the first woman to command a Crew Dragon and the third female spacecraft commander in history, as she follows in the footsteps of shuttle-era astronauts Eileen Collins and current NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy.
Crew-5 is expected to remain aboard the ISS for five to six months, producing an anticipated return to Earth in March 2023, during which time they will support 250-300 research experiments and technology demonstrations. Joining them for much of their Expedition 68 increment will be Russian cosmonauts Sergei Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin, together with NASA’s Frank Rubio, who are set to launch from Baikonur in Kazakhstan aboard Soyuz MS-22 in late September.