Three days into 2023—the earliest it has ever flown in any New Year—SpaceX successfully kicked off an ambitious flight manifest early Tuesday, as a 15-times-used Falcon 9 core rocketed 114 payloads from 17 sovereign nations into orbit from storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla. It was the first launch from U.S. soil in 2023 and begins a year in which SpaceX anticipates flying up to 100 times, with three more flights scheduled from the Space Coast alone before mid-January.
Liftoff of B1060, the second Falcon 9 first stage in under a month to log a record-setting 15th launch, took place at 9:56 a.m. EST. And over the course of the following hour, the flight-seasoned booster returned safely to an on-point touchdown at the Cape’s Landing Zone (LZ)-1—the 36th successful landing of a Falcon-class booster on solid ground in 37 tries since December 2015—as the second stage went on to deploy the Transporter-6 “rideshare” haul of 114 CubeSats, microsats, picosats and orbital transfer vehicles into orbit.
As its nomenclature implies, this was SpaceX’s sixth haul of multi-payload Transporter “stacks”. Five earlier missions in January and June of 2021, and more recently in January, April and May of last year, lifted some 435 payloads—including miniaturized CubeSats and PocketQubes—covering a smorgasbord of disciplines from Earth observations to technology, communications to navigation, remote sensing to Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) and education to amateur radio, on behalf of 32 sovereign nations.
Notably, Transporter-1’s haul of 143 small satellites—totaling 11,000 pounds (5,000 kilograms) in mass—still stands as the greatest number of discrete payloads ever launched into orbit by a single U.S. orbital-class launch vehicle. And last May’s Transporter-5 mission supported the first-of-its-kind robotic cutting of metals in orbit, in furtherance of future NanoRacks Space Outpost concepts.
Weather at the Cape was near-ideal for SpaceX’s first flight of the year, with a 90-percent probability of acceptable conditions on Tuesday’s opening launch attempt, diminishing to 80-percent for the backup opportunity on Wednesday. As such, B1060 found a sweet spot following the departure of one frontal weather boundary last weekend and preceding the anticipated arrival of a new system around the middle of this week.
“Another frontal system is anticipated to reach the Spaceport late Wednesday into early Thursday,” noted the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base in its L-1 briefing, updated early Monday morning. “Ahead of the front, a stronger pressure gradient will raise wind speeds and as the high center moves off farther into the Atlantic, winds will shift to become southeasterly.
“Weather concerns for the primary launch attempt…are the Cumulus Cloud Rule, due to a minor chance for fast, onshore-moving Atlantic showers, as well as Liftoff Winds,” the 45th continued in its day-before-launch summary. “Should the launch push the backup opportunity, the front will be located along the panhandle of Florida and expected to affect Central Florida by Wednesday evening.”
As such, Tuesday morning’s launch attempt hovered around 90-percent-favorable, with heightened wind speeds and a change in wind direction expected to shift Wednesday’s meteorological outlook in a downward direction to around 80 percent. B1060 roared aloft at 9:56 a.m. EST, making this the earliest Falcon 9 to fly in any calendar year, surpassing 2022 which saw its opening launch on 6 January.
Two and a half minutes after liftoff, the blackened and scorched core stage began a graceful descent back homeward. Guided by hypersonic grid-fins and multiple “burns” of her Merlin 1D+ engine suite, she swept back to Earth, the view changing from a wide perspective of the Home Planet to a swath of clouds, then the Cape and finally the broad expanse of LZ-1, its characteristic “X” emblem at dead-center.
This morning’s landing marked the 36th successful time in 37 attempts that a Falcon-class vehicle—including four pairs of Falcon Heavy side-boosters—have alighted on solid ground at either the Cape or Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., since December 2015. Only one booster failed to reach its landing pad: back in December 2018, fresh from delivering the CRS-16 Cargo Dragon to the International Space Station (ISS), B1050 suffered a hydraulic pump-stall in one of her hypersonic grid-fins, forcing her LZ-1 touchdown to be abandoned and she was ditched out at sea.
With B1060 gone, the single Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the Falcon 9’s second stage executed a standard six-minute “burn” to deliver the Transporter-6 payload stack into orbit. And beginning a little under an hour into this morning’s flight, the 114 payloads were successfully deployed at intervals as short as a few seconds.
First out was KuwaitSat-1, a 2U-sized CubeSat provided by Kuwait University, which includes a multi-color camera payload flying as a technology demonstration to support attitude determination and control. Then, over the next 33 minutes, the remaining payloads—flying on behalf of the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Turkey, France, the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Ukraine, Japan, Israel, Albania, Argentina, Italy and the United States—were deployed from their respective dispensers, some departing the Falcon 9 second stage as little as a couple seconds apart.
Key focuses of this multitude of smallsats span technology demonstrations to amateur radio, Earth observation to communications and air-traffic management to Internet of Things (IoT). Included in the mammoth Transporter-6 haul are a 36-strong “flock” of SuperDove Earth imaging satellites, provided by Planet Labs, six Lemur-2 Earth observations satellites, built by Spire Global, and 12 SpaceBEE two-way communications and data-relay satellites, supplied by Swarm Technologies, Inc.
A great many international partnerships have been forged through the Transporter-6 mission, with the joint UK/Spanish Menut smallsat devoted to Earth observations and a technology demonstrator called Huygens flying for the Netherlands and Norway.
Two satellites from the Government of Albania, thought to cost in the region of $6 million to develop and build, were deployed, plus a pair of French satellites—one a technology demonstrator, the other devoted to SIGINT—as well as Earth observation and imaging satellites for Germany, Luxembourg, Japan and Argentina.
As the conflict in eastern Europe drags into its second year, a Ukrainian satellite sponsored by Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, and devoted to amateur radio, was a notable placeholder on today’s mission. A Netherlands-supplied satellite for Automatic Identification System (AIS) ship tracking and a group of smallsat dispensers and tugs—including Momentus’ Vigoride-5, Launcher’s Orbiter SN1 and the seventh ION Satellite Carrier Vehicle (SCV), flying on behalf of Italy’s D-Orbit—rounded out an impressive raft of payloads.
Up next in January’s first half are three more missions, all utilizing SLC-40 or the Kennedy Space Center’s (KSC) historic Pad 39A. First to fly, possibly as soon as Monday, 9 January, will be SpaceX’s second stack of high-speed, low-latency broadband microsatellites for London, England-based OneWeb. Forty of these satellites—totaling almost 13,000 pounds (5,900 kilograms)—were lofted last month, in the first of an expected three launches for SpaceX through this spring.
This will be followed, around mid-month, by the next triple-barreled Falcon Heavy, laden with the highly secretive USSF-67 payload for the U.S. Space Force. It is expected that the brand-new center core for this mission will be expended, with the two side-boosters embarking on their second launches, having flown on last fall’s USSF-44.
Contracts worth $316 million to launch USSF-67 were awarded to SpaceX back in August 2020. Its payload includes the second Boeing-built Continuous Broadcast Augmenting SATCOM (CBAS-2), intended for emplacement into geostationary orbit to furnish enhanced military communications and the uninterrupted broadcasting of military data.
Thought to weigh in the region of 5,500 pounds (2,500 kilograms), a previous CBAS flew aboard the former Air Force Space Command’s AFSPC-11 mission, via a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V, in April 2018. Also aboard USSF-67 is LDPE-3A, a mouthful of an acronym denoting the Long Duration Propulsive ESPA, which carries a suite of payloads affixed to an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) Secondary Payload Adapter (ESPA) “ring”.
Also on the books for the mid-January timeframe is the U.S. Space Force’s sixth Block III Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation and timing satellite, headed for Medium Earth Orbit (MEO). Named in honor of aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, this will be the fifth GPS bird to ride a Falcon 9 and represents the final phase of a $290.5 million launch services contract awarded by the Air Force to SpaceX in March 2018.