Record-Setting “Vandenberg Falcon” Flies, as SpaceX Heads for 50th Launch of 2022

Spectacular view of Thursday’s Falcon 9 launch out of Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., as seen from Los Angeles. Photo Credit: Elon Musk/Twitter

A dedicated “Vandenberg Falcon”, making a record-setting seventh launch out of the mountain-ringed West Coast facility, roared smoothly aloft from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-4E at 6:14 p.m. PDT (9:14 p.m. EDT) Thursday, laden with dozens more Starlink internet communications satellites destined for low-Earth orbit. The B1063 core—making the eighth total flight of her career, having also launched once from the Space Coast—scored SpaceX’s sixth and final mission of October.

Video Credit: SpaceX

As well as marking a personal-best-tying sixth Falcon 9 in a single calendar month, repeating a feat done previously in April, July and August, last night’s flight also marked SpaceX’s second flight of October from Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., as its aggressive 2022 launch cadence rumbles on. Forty-nine Falcon 9 flights have been executed so far this year, using only 12 boosters, including three brand-new core stages and one frequently used vehicle which has logged seven missions since January.

In readiness for Thursday night’s launch attempt, the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Of Course I Still Love You”, which arrived at Vandenberg last summer after a stellar East Coast career, departed Port of Long Beach on Tuesday, 25 October, bound for a position about 400 miles (640 kilometres) downrange. OCISLY scored its first successful Falcon 9 “catch” back in April 2016 and by the close of its East Coast career in June 2021 it had recovered the core stages from no fewer than 45 missions.

The B1063 core was making her record-setting seventh launch out of Vandenberg and the eighth flight of her career so far. Photo Credit: SpaceX

With the baton of East Coast operations having been taken up by fellow drone ships “Just Read the Instructions” and—since August 2021—by “A Shortfall of Gravitas”, OCISLY was transferred later that summer to Vandenberg to support her first mission out of the West Coast in September 2021. Following last night’s smooth return of B1063, she has now safely recovered 11 missions from Vandenberg, bringing her career tally up to 56.

Thursday’s liftoff came right on time at 6:14 p.m. PDT (9:14 p.m. EDT) Thursday and B1063 powered smoothly uphill, her nine Merlin 1D+ first-stage engines delivering an estimated 1.5 million pounds (680,000 kilograms) of thrust. The core separated from the 230-foot-tall (70-meter) stack at 2.5 minutes into flight, after which the Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the Falcon 9’s second stage came alive for a customary six-minute “burn” to deliver the 53 Starlinks into orbit.

The sixth Falcon 9 mission of October takes flight at 6:14 p.m. PDT (9:14 p.m. EDT) on Thursday, 27 October. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Deployment occurred a little over 15 minutes after launch and the Starlink “stack” is now onward bound to its final orbital position at an altitude of 340 miles (550 kilometers), inclined 53.2 degrees to the equator. It brings the total number of Starlinks flown out of Vandenberg so far to 443 in ten Falcon 9 launches.

As the Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine did her thing, B1063 returned safely to Earth, guided by her computerized brain, movable hypersonic grid-fins and a sequence of intricately timed Entry and Landing Burns, to alight with pinpoint grace on the deck of OCISLY about 8.5 minutes after liftoff. She now becomes the first Falcon 9 core to fly as many as seven times out of the West Coast.

The glare of the the Merlin 1D+ engine exhaust pieces the murk as Falcon 9 punches through the clouds. Photo Credit: SpaceX

In fact, this specific booster is one of few members of SpaceX’s fleet to have alternated her launches between the West and East Coasts, then back again. B1063 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.

She then briefly relocated to Florida to launch a 60-strong “stack” of Starlinks in May of 2021. Returned later that same summer to Vandenberg, she supported last November’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) launch and lofted four more Starlink flights in February, May, July and August 2022.

B1063 heads above Vandenberg’s low cloud deck as she continues her push for space. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Starlink’s progress as an internet provider on the world stage has advanced in leaps and bounds in 2022, notably with emergency provision granted to Ukraine earlier this year following Russia’s invasion. Availability was expanded to include Malta and—controversially—Iran last month and more recently Japan and Jamaica in October. This brings to 44 the total number of sovereign nations and worldwide markers spanning North and South America, Europe, Asia and Oceania to have formally signed up to Starlink since the fall of 2020.

With the completion of last night’s mission, SpaceX has now flown 11 times out of Vandenberg in 2022, using only three boosters, a significant uptick on its previous record of six launches from the West Coast in a single year, achieved back in 2018. In total, 392 Starlinks have flown on eight missions this year, together with a pair of classified payloads for the National Reconnaissance Office—NROL-87 in February and NROL-85 in April—plus Germany’s SARah-1 radar-imaging surveillance satellite last June.

The Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the second stage (right pane) glows red-hot as it powers the 53-strong Starlink stack to orbit, whilst B1063’s hypersonic grid-fins deploy (left pane) ahead of touchdown. Photo Credit: SpaceX

And following its 49th mission of the year, attention now turns to the East Coast and SpaceX’s record-breaking 50th, as a triple-barreled Falcon Heavy waits patiently atop historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is targeting liftoff as early as Tuesday, 1 November—All Saints’ Day, no less—with the highly classified USSF-44 payload for the U.S. Space Force.

It will be the fourth outing of the Heavy since February 2018 and its first mission in more than three years. The colossal rocket was rolled horizontally out to Pad 39A earlier this week and on Thursday was put through a Static Fire Test of the 27 Merlin 1D+ engines on its core stage and twin side-mounted boosters.

Devoid of its USSF-44 payload fairing, the Falcon Heavy’s 27 Merlin 1D+ engines roar briefly to life on Thursday evening for a pre-launch Static Fire Test. Photo Credit: SpaceX

At the instant of liftoff, the Heavy generates close to 5.4 million pounds (2.4 million kilograms) of thrust and has the capacity to deliver up to 141,000 pounds (63,950 kilograms) of payload into low-Earth orbit and as much as 59,000 pounds (26,760 kilograms) to higher geostationary altitudes.

All three boosters on the USSF-44 mission are unflown with an expectation that the core will be expended, falling into a patch of the Atlantic Ocean some 900 miles (1,450 kilometers) downrange of KSC. The twin side-boosters are targeted to return to touch down on solid ground at Landing Zones (LZ) 1 and 2, the repurposed Launch Complex (LC)-13 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla.

Impressive view of the Falcon Heavy, minus its payload fairing, atop Pad 39A. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

Weighing an estimated 8,200 pounds (3,700 kilograms), the USSF-44 payload started life under the Air Force Space Command designator of “AFSPC-44”. Contracts between SpaceX and the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) at Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, Calif., totaling $297 million, were signed back in February 2019 and covered the launches of AFSPC-44 and a pair of missions for the National Reconnaissance Office, NROL-87 and NROL-85.

Earlier this year, the two NRO missions were lofted by a pair of Falcon 9 flights out of Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif.—NROL-87 in February and NROL-85 in April—with AFSPC-44 having been redesignated “USSF-44” following the formation of the U.S. Space Force in December 2019. Also aboard the Falcon Heavy will be a group of other payloads, including the small TETRA-1 technology demonstrator, built for the Space Force by Millennium Space Systems, for injection into geostationary orbit.

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