SpaceX Launches 200th Falcon 9, Continues Vandenberg Cadence

B1071 powers uphill from Vandenberg on SpaceX’s 200th Falcon 9 mission. Photo Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX has launched its 200th “single-stick” Falcon 9, as a seven-times-flown booster rose from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., at 8:15 a.m. PST (11:15 a.m. EST) on Tuesday, following two days of delay “to complete pre-launch checkouts”. Aboard B1071—a dedicated “Vandenberg Falcon”, which made her maiden outing from the West Coast less than a year ago—was a “stack” of 49 Starlink internet communications satellites, destined for emplacement into low-Earth orbit at an altitude of 210 miles (330 kilometers), inclined 70 degrees to the equator. This morning’s launch was the 70th dedicated Starlink mission.

Video Credit: SpaceX

Tuesday’s launch brings 2023’s running Starlink tally to 156, before the first month of the year is out. And the total number of these flat-packed satellites lofted in 70 dedicated missions since May 2019 now stands at 3,810.

B1071’s career has been a truly stellar one, kicking off last 2 February when she smoothly delivered the highly secretive NROL-87 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office. Even before her maiden launch, however, the NRO had indicated its intent to use B1071 a second time and in mid-April she flew again with NROL-85.

Tuesday’s launch wraps up January on seven launches for SpaceX, tying with December. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Missions thereafter came thick and fast: Germany’s SARah-1 radar-imaging surveillance satellite in mid-June, and three Starlink batches—totaling 147 satellites—in late July, early October and this morning. Added to that list, a few days before Christmas she lofted the NASA-led Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite for a three-year-plus investigation of the changeability of surface water bodies over time.

Seven launches in less than a year is a remarkable accomplishment and between her June and July missions B1071 was turned around in only 34 days. Four of her missions ended with on-point touchdowns on solid ground at Vandenberg’s Landing Zone (LZ)-4, whilst three others alighted offshore on the expansive deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Of Course I Still Love You”.

After separating from the stack, B1071 began her descent to a drone ship landing (left pane) as the Starlink payload was exposed for deployment (right pane). Photo Credit: SpaceX

Following a 24-hour delay past Sunday’s original target date, liftoff was rescheduled for 8:34 a.m. PST (11:34 a.m. EST) Monday. But for the second day in a row, SpaceX elected to postpone again “to allow additional time for pre-launch checkouts” and a revised T-0 of 8:15 a.m. PST (11:15 a.m. EST) Tuesday was established.

Rising into the clear Vandenberg sky, B1071 performed with characteristic grace, her nine Merlin 1D+ engines delivering 1.5 million pounds (680,000 kilograms) of thrust to lift the 230-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 airborne for the first 2.5 minutes of ascent. The seasoned core then separated from the stack and commenced a smooth descent to land on OCISLY.

Tuesday morning’s mission, on January’s final day, marked the seventh SpaceX mission (and the sixth Falcon 9 mission) of the month. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Alone now, the single Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the rocket’s second stage performed its own six-minute “burn” to lift the payload to its intended orbit. Deployment of the 49-strong Starlink stack came later than usual, at 77 minutes into flight, preceded by the ninth ION Satellite Carrier Vehicle (ION SCV009)—on a mission dubbed “Starfield”—flying on behalf of the Italian space tug manufacturer, D-Orbit.

Nicknamed “Eclectic Elena”, ION SCV009 is the latest in a series of carriers, featuring a customizable 64U dispenser to accommodate groups of CubeSats and smallsats for deployment into tailored orbits. Eight previous ION SCV flights between September 2020 and most recently a pair of ION SCVs aboard SpaceX’s Transporter-6 mission, earlier this month, lifted a smorgasbord of small payloads for 17 sovereign nations.

View of the Transporter-6 deployment earlier in January. Photo Credit: SpaceX

“Thanks to its propulsion module, ION Satellite Carrier can travel across orbits characterized by different attitude, and local time of ascending node (LTAN) through the course of a mission and deploy each hosted satellite in a custom orbit,” explained D-Orbit. “ION can also perform operations on hosted payloads in their optimal operating position.”

The first ION SCV rode an Arianespace Vega booster out of the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana. And the remainder have been carried aloft by SpaceX Falcon 9s from the Space Coast, flying on all six Transporter rideshare missions in January and June 2021, January, April and May of last year, and earlier this month.

An ION Satellite Carrier Vehicle (SCV) undergoes checkout prior to launch. Photo Credit: D-Orbit

A few weeks ago, D-Orbit signed a hosted-payload contract with Simsbury, Conn.-headquartered Ensign-Bickford Aerospace & Defense Company (EBAD) to demonstrate a new 8-inch (20-centimeter) low-shock payload release “ring”, affixed to a satellite simulator integrated into the ION SCV. “The test will be performed while ION will be operating in a mid-inclination orbit, with an altitude of 170 miles (270 kilometers),” D-Orbit noted.

“By releasing the simulator in proximity to the perigee, D-Orbit will ensure that it will burn up in the atmosphere within four to eight weeks,” it added. “Prior to raising ION’s orbit, D-Orbit is able to perform experiments in very low-Earth orbit, opening opportunities for a wide range of experiments and thus reducing the number of CubeSats that would otherwise remain in orbit for years after their experiment has concluded.”

B1071 descends toward the deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), about eight minutes after Tuesday morning’s launch. Photo Credit: SpaceX

EBAD’s experiment represented an In-Orbit Demonstration (IOD) of the new payload release mechanism and an all-up evaluation of its ability to maneuver in an extremely low orbit. Its place as a rideshare payload on today’s mission was not publicly announced until Friday, when it suddenly appeared via SpaceX’s website.

Also riding aboard ION SCV009 were three other payloads. ADEO-N3, a German autonomous braking sail, will evaluate methods to assist with the disposal of low-orbiting satellites at altitudes below 560 miles (900 kilometers).

Blackened and scorched from seven high-energy ascents and re-entries, B1071 sits silently on OCISLY’s deck. Photo Credit: SpaceX

The Swiss-provided Bunny payload is a student investigation to explore the chemical composition and temporal evolution of Earth’s atmosphere, designed to test a proof-of-concept for low-cost probes to investigate extraterrestrial atmospheres on future missions. And a batch of aluminum-machined StardustMe memorial capsules transported about 0.03 ounces (1 gram) of human cremated ashes into space.

Significantly, Tuesday’s launch also marked the 200th flight of a Falcon 9 booster, though not the fleet’s 200th fully successful mission, since June 2010. Over the course of almost 13 years, a total of 66 Falcon 9 cores—including a veteran Falcon Heavy side-booster, converted into a single-stick Falcon 9—executed those 200 flights, with six boosters logging ten or more missions and two having flown as many as 15 times.

Beautiful view of B1049 launching SpaceX’s 100th Falcon 9 mission in November 2020. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

It took more than a full decade, not until November 2020, for SpaceX to reach its 100th Falcon 9 launch. But in a remarkable indicator of the system’s steadily burgeoning maturity, reusability and reliability, it has since taken a little over two years to hit No. 200.

Across that span of flights, which hit an all-time high of 61 annual launches at the close of 2022, 30 humans from eight nations have been launched into low-Earth orbit via SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and 26 Cargo Dragons have headed uphill to deliver and return equipment, payloads and supplies to and from the International Space Station (ISS). Forty-five commercial communications satellites, 16 science missions—including the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) to visit the asteroid Didymos and impact its tiny companion, Dimorphos, South Korea’s first lunar probe and Israel’s ill-fated Beresheet Moon lander—and several classified payloads for the National Reconnaissance Office and other undisclosed U.S. Government customers have also ridden Falcon 9s to orbit.

B1049 launches SpaceX’s 100th Falcon 9 mission in November 2020. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

Those missions saw SpaceX recover returning Falcon 9 cores with no less than 29 “land” landings at Cape Canaveral or Vandenberg since December 2015. And including this morning’s safe return of B1071, a total of 128 on-point touchdowns on the expansive ASDS decks have been accomplished since April 2016.

With the completion of Tuesday’s mission out of Vandenberg, SpaceX closes out January with seven launches, equaling its previous personal best set last month. Another Starlink-laden Falcon 9, tentatively slated to fly from historic Pad 39A at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) as early as Wednesday, has now slipped until no sooner than 2:43 a.m. EST Thursday, making it SpaceX’s first scheduled flight of February.

B1069 previously launched the Hotbird 13F geostationary communications satellite last fall. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

Thursday’s mission will be flown by B1069, making her fifth flight, and is tasked with the deployment of 53 Starlinks. Weather conditions for three launch attempts on Thursday—a first at 2:43 a.m. EST, a second at 4:24 a.m. EST and a third at 6:05 a.m. EST—are predicted to be around 90-percent favorable.

“Dying frontal boundary is stalled across North Florida this morning, where it will shortly wash out, overtaken by another boundary sliding through the Southeastern U.S.,” noted the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base in its L-2 update, issued Tuesday. “Trends have been for better moisture to stay north, with limited chances for light passing showers today and tonight.

SpaceX’s B1069 booster returns to Landing Zone (LZ)-1 at the Cape after launching the first batch of OneWeb satellites in December 2022. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

“The next system taking shape along the western Gulf Coast on Wednesday will lift the boundary north, allowing the western Atlantic ridge to briefly nose back in,” it was added. “A light Atlantic shower in the vicinity cannot be ruled out for the primary launch opportunities early Thursday morning, but the threat for significant cumulus clouds at the launch site will be low.

“Light winds will allow fog and stratus development, especially towards the back end of the window,” the 45th concluded. Conditions are expected to dip slightly to around 80-percent favorable for Friday’s backup launch opportunities at 2:18 a.m. EST, 3:59 a.m. EST and 5:40 a.m. EST, due to cumulus clouds associated with showers.

Four spacefarers from three nations will ride Dragon Endeavour to the International Space Station (ISS), no sooner than 26 February. From left to right are Russian cosmonaut Andrei Fedyayev, U.S. astronauts Warren “Woody” Hoburg and Steve Bowen and Sultan Al-Neyadi of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Photo Credit: NASA

Although SpaceX reveals little in terms of a definitive mission manifest, it can be expected that 2023’s second month will likely aim for at least seven or eight launches. In addition to a regular cadence of Starlink launches, February will see Dragon Endeavour fly her fourth mission to carry NASA astronauts Steve Bowen and Warren “Woody” Hoburg, Russian cosmonaut Andrei Fedyayev and Sultan Al-Neyadi of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for a six-month ISS increment.

Bowen, Hoburg, Al-Neyadi and Fedyayev will launch from KSC’s Pad 39A no earlier than 2:07 a.m. EST on 26 February, targeting a half-day, eight-orbit rendezvous and docking at the space-facing (or “zenith”) port of the station’s Harmony node. According to NASA ISS Program Manager Joel Montalbano, speaking last week, their increment is expected to reach 180-182 days in duration, producing a return to Earth in late August.

Hispasat’s Amazonas Nexus High Throughput Satellite (HTS), slated to ride a Falcon 9 from the Space Coast next month, with furnish communications to the entire American continents, the North Atlantic Corridor and Greenland. Photo Credit: Hispasat

Added to that list, a pair of commercial geostationary payloads—Hispasat’s Amazonas Nexus High Throughput Satellite (HTS), built by Thales Alenia Space, and the Inmarsat-6 F2 Ka-band and advanced L-band communications satellite, manufactured by Airbus Defence & Space—are expected to head uphill in February. Amazonas Nexus departed Nice, France, earlier in January, and is undergoing pre-launch processing at the Cape, whilst Inmarsat-6 F2 left its testing facility in Toulouse, France, for the Space Coast, just last week.

Also slated for a February launch is a second pair of O3B mPOWER broadband satellites, flying for Luxembourg-based SES. And another Falcon 9 will deploy a pair of Maxar-built WorldView Legion satellites to Sun-synchronous orbit, doubling Westminster, Colo.-headquartered DigitalGlobe’s capacity to gather high-resolution geospatial imagery by resolving surface details as small as 12 inches (30 centimeters).

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