Even Santa Claus, with his sleigh-assisted, reindeer-guided propensity for works of awe, would struggle to put almost a hundred satellites into low-Earth orbit within the bounds of a single night. Yet as SpaceX gears up for as many as a hundred launches in 2023, that is precisely what may—just may—occur from the West and East Coasts of the United States, later tonight, as a pair of Falcon 9 boosters stand primed to take flight: the first (weather permitting) from Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., at 8:15 p.m. PST (11:15 p.m. EST), and the second from storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla., less than an hour later, at 11:50 p.m. EST.
The unusual closeness of the two back-to-back attempts came about following SpaceX’s decision late Sunday to postpone its scheduled 11:55 p.m. EST launch from the Cape, in order “to complete pre-launch processing” on the once-before-used B1076 core at SLC-40. It was noted that both vehicle and spacecraft were healthy and weather conditions along the Space Coast were ideal, hovering around 90-percent favorable for both Sunday’s primary launch attempt and an 11:50 p.m. EST Monday backup try.
“High pressure is building back in and will anchor over the Gulf of Mexico for much of the week,” noted the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base in its L-0 update, early Monday. “Dry conditions and northerly winds are expected throughout the day today, with winds shifting northwesterly tomorrow.
“Very little is expected in the way of cloud cover, with the exception of some shallow cumulus off the coast,” it was added. “Little change for the backup window as conditions remain very favorable for launch.”
Meanwhile, at Vandenberg, the brand-new B1075 core remains targeted for an 8:15 p.m. PST (11:15 p.m. EST) launch from SLC-4E, laden with 51 Starlink internet communications satellites, destined for emplacement into low-Earth orbit at an altitude of 350 miles (570 kilometers), inclined 70 degrees to the equator. Despite predicted stormy weather along the California coastline over the weekend, and a likelihood of rain at T-0, at the time of writing SpaceX had issued no announcement of a delay to this launch.
“Teams are keeping on eye on weather conditions,” SpaceX tweeted on Monday afternoon, “which are 30-percent favorable for liftoff.” If B1075 launches on time, she will return to a pinpoint touchdown on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Of Course I Still Love You”, about eight minutes after liftoff.
The drone ship put to sea out of Port of Long Beach last Saturday. The 51 Starlinks are expected to be deployed about 29 minutes after launch, marking the first flight of these flat-packed internet communications satellites in 2023.
Attention will then revert to SLC-40 at the Cape, where B1076—which previously saw service to launch the CRS-26 Cargo Dragon to the International Space Station (ISS), under the second-round Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA, late last November—is now set to fly no sooner than 11:50 p.m. EST. If achieved, this will establish a new record of just 35 minutes between two Falcon 9 launches.
The current record of seven hours and ten minutes was set last 5 October between the 12 noon EDT launch of Dragon Endurance and Crew-5 from the East Coast—NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada, Japan’s Koichi Wakata and Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina—and a Starlink flight out of Vandenberg at 4:10 p.m. PDT (7:10 p.m. EDT). An attempt to narrow that record down to under six hours with a pair of launches last November proved fruitless, as did hopes to fly two Falcon 9s just 18 minutes apart last month.
Aboard B1076 will be a “stack” of 40 broadband internet microsatellites for London, England-based OneWeb, targeting insertion into a near-polar orbit, inclined 86 degrees to the equator. Each satellite reportedly weighs some 275 pounds (125 kilograms) and will sit at an altitude of 750 miles (1,250 kilometers) and this is the second of three “batches” of OneWebs contracted to SpaceX, following an initial launch last month.
It will also be the 16th total batch of OneWebs to have flown since February 2019. Thirteen batches, totaling 428 satellites—about 66 percent of OneWeb’s planned first generation of 648 satellites—were lifted to orbit via Russia’s venerable Soyuz rocket from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, Kazakhstan’s famed Baikonur Cosmodrome and the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Russian Far East.
But following President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last spring, and the resultant raft of economic sanctions imposed by Western governments on Russia, OneWeb suspended six further launches out of Baikonur and sourced alternate providers. Last March, it contracted with SpaceX, then added New Space India Ltd., the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), to its expanding launcher portfolio in April.
Thirty-six OneWebs rode the first of two planned Indian Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) III boosters from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh, last October, raising the total number of satellites placed into orbit to 462. And last month, a Falcon 9 lifted 40 more OneWebs to space in the first of three SpaceX launches to be completed by later this spring.
According to OneWeb, tonight’s second batch of 40 SpaceX-launched OneWebs will bring the constellation’s first generation to 542, some 80-percent complete. A definitive No Earlier Than (NET) date for the third Falcon 9 launch for OneWeb has yet to be announced, but is anticipated within 2023’s first quarter.