A ten-times-flown Falcon 9 booster successfully rose from Earth at 11:47 p.m. PDT Friday (2:47 a.m. EDT Saturday) for SpaceX’s seventh mission out of Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., inside the opening four months of 2023. Riding the veteran B1063 core—more than half of whose nine prior launches were flown in 2022 alone—out of the Space Launch Complex (SLC)-4E at the mountain-ringed West Coast launch site was Transporter-7, a 51-payload haul of CubeSats, MicroSats, “hosted” payloads and Orbital Transfer Vehicles (OTVs) whose objectives run the gamut from Earth observations to technology and from Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) to education for a diverse spread of customers from 13 sovereign nations.
As its name implies, this was SpaceX’s seventh launch of a Transporter payload “stack”. A pair of initial missions in January and June of 2021, then three more in January, April and May of last year, and most recently Transporter-6 last January, lifted a grand total of 549 payloads—including miniaturized CubeSats and PocketQubes—covering a smorgasbord of disciplines from Earth observations, remote sensing and meteorology to technology, communications and navigation and from SIGINT, education and amateur radio to Internet of Things (IoT), Ultra High-Definition (UHD) television streaming and biological research, on behalf of no fewer than 37 sovereign nations.
Notably, Transporter-1’s haul of 143 small satellites, totaling 11,000 pounds (5,000 kilograms), still stands as the greatest number of discrete payloads ever orbited by a single U.S. orbital-class launch vehicle. Last May’s Transporter-5 supported a first-of-its-kind robotic cutting of metals demonstration in space, in furtherance of future NanoRacks Space Outpost design concepts. And the Transporter program also facilitated the launches of the first national satellites for Albania, Kuwait and Armenia.
Early Tuesday, SpaceX tweeted that it was aiming for an 11:48 p.m. PDT Tuesday (2:48 a.m. EDT Wednesday) opening launch attempt for its third flight of April, following the inaugural Tranche-0 of the Transport and Tracking Layer (TTL) for the Space Development Agency (SDA) and last week’s mission to loft the Intelsat 40e geostationary communications satellite with NASA’s “hosted” Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution (TEMPO). The Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered organization added that it was “keeping an eye on weather” for Tuesday’s attempt, which prompted a further slip to a new T-0 firstly to late Thursday night—scrubbed at T-28 seconds—and eventually late Friday night.
Targeting insertion into a Sun Synchronous Orbit (SSO) at an altitude of about 310 miles (550 kilometers), Transporter-7 went smoothly airborne at 13 minutes shy of midnight PDT on Friday. A little over 2.5 minutes into the flight, on time, the veteran core shut down and separated from the stack, returning to a pinpoint landing on solid ground—the second “land” landing at Vandenberg in April alone—on Landing Zone (LZ)-4.
Alone now, the single Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the Falcon 9’s second stage ignited for a customary six-minute “burn” to position the Transporter-7 payload in the proper configuration for its multi-hour deployment. Of specific note, the second-stage engine reportedly debuted a modified nozzle to increase cadence and reduce costs. With a lower specific impulse and a corresponding impact on performance, it was noted that this modified Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine will be utilized on missions which do not demand the full performance capability of the Falcon 9.
Following the first Merlin 1D+ Vacuum burn, the stack coasted for 49 minutes, ahead of a brief second firing, before the Transporter-7 deployment got underway at 61 minutes into last night’s mission. And over the next hour and a half, the 51 payloads were satisfactorily released to begin their missions.
First out was the first of three Earth observation satellites, provided by the Canadian firm GHGSat, which specializes in the development of miniaturized technologies for high-resolution monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions. Traditionally named in honor of the children of GHGSat team-members, the three satellites aboard Transporter-7—“Mey-Lin”, “Océane” and “Gaspard”—completed pre-launch tests last December and all are equipped with a high-resolution interferometer to measure methane signatures in the atmosphere, with a daily revisit capability over key oil and gas production sites.
Next out were Turkey’s SSS-2B and KILICSAT satellites for education and amateur radio, the DEWASat-2 Earth observation and technology demonstration satellite for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and France’s BRO-9, a small SIGINT geolocation platform tasked with detecting and tracking ships at sea. In rapid succession, others followed: a Kenyan Earth observation satellite, Turkey’s Connecta T2.1 CubeSat—equipped with a high-resolution multispectral camera to combine IoT data with Earth observations—and a Colombian Air Force payload dubbed “Chibiriquete”, which carries a spectrometer for cartography, topographical mapping and strategic intelligence objectives.
Other members of Transporter-7’s half-century haul of payloads included an Earth observation satellite from Monaco, a technology demonstrator from California State Polytechnic University at Pomona and the Colorado Inner Radiation Belt Experiment (CIRBE), provided by the University of Colorado at Boulder, which seeks to investigate electrons within Earth’s inner radiation belt to determine their sources and behavior. CIRBE’s highly inclined orbit will enable it to conduct detailed measurements of electrons in the energy range from 3-3.5 MeV and protons from 6-35 MeV.
Three Lemur satellites, flying on behalf of Spire Global, were deployed, together with a quartet of Argentinian satellites and three HawkEye360 satellites, all devoted to Earth observations and geospatial imaging. Notably, the three Hawks were all built, integrated and tested at HawkEye360’s new Advanced Technology Center in Herndon, Va., and were shipped to Vandenberg just last month for stacking into the Falcon 9.
Further underscoring Transporter-7’s international flavor, payloads were deployed for Norway, Taiwan, Hungary, Italy and Denmark. Seventy-seven minutes after launch, the Italian firm D-Orbit’s ION Satellite Carrier Vehicle (SCV)-010—nicknamed “Masterful Matthaeus”—was released from the Falcon 9, laden with a suite of deployable CubeSats, followed at 82 minutes by Momentus’ Vigoride-6 Orbital Service Vehicle (OSV) “tug” with its own haul of seven payloads.
Vigoride-6 arrived at Vandenberg last month and carried seven technology demonstration payloads from the United States, Italy, Denmark, Hungary and Taiwan for deployment into a circular orbit at an altitude of 307 miles (495 kilometers). These included NASA’s twin Low-Latitude Ionosphere/Thermosphere Enhancements in Density (LLITED) spacecraft for “coincident” measurements of the ionosphere and thermosphere to characterize the Equatorial Temperature Wind Anomaly (ETWA) and Equatorial Ionization Anomaly (EIA).
Another notable payload aboard Vigoride-6 was the “hosted” TApe Spring Solar Array (TASSA) demonstrator, which carries several sheets of flexible solar-cell material bonded to tape springs. In support of its payloads, Vigoride-6 was tasked with performing a sequence of maneuvers to test its on-board Microwave Electrothermal Thruster (MET)—which utilizes water propellant and produces thrust by expelling extremely hot gas through its nozzle—and conduct Perigee Reduction Maneuvers (PRMs) to reduce to a matter of months its intended decay time from orbit.
With the multitude of the Transporter-7 haul thus deployed, two more Merlin 1D+ Vacuum burns, lasting a couple seconds apiece, occurred at 106 and 151 minutes after launch. Finally, Turkey’s 1,800-pound (800-kilogram) İMECE high-resolution submillimeter-range Earth observation satellite was released at 155 minutes into the flight, to wrap up this overnight mission for SpaceX. Further multi-payload Transporter flights—the eighth and ninth in the series—are aiming for launch slots this coming October and in the first quarter of 2024, respectively.
Ahead, attention turns from Vandenberg back to the Space Coast, where SpaceX’s triple-barreled Falcon Heavy is in the final stages of readiness to launch from historic Pad 39A at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) early next week. Flying this mission will be a brand-new core and a pair of side-boosters which boast nine prior flights between them, although the high-energy requirements of the primary payload mean that all three will be expended after launch, with neither the ground pads at the Cape or the offshore Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ships (ASDS) expected to be called into action for this launch.
“Static Fire of Falcon Heavy complete,” SpaceX tweeted late Thursday, after the giant booster’s 27 engines roared alive for a few seconds in a pre-launch test. “Targeting Tuesday, 18 April for launch of @ViaSatInc’s ViaSat-3 Americas mission. The 57-minute launch window opens at 7:29 p.m. EDT.”
Aboard the mammoth Heavy for its sixth flight—and the second of five missions planned for 2023—is the first of three ViaSat-3 ultra-high-capacity broadband satellites, with liftoff anticipated at 7:36 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, 18 April. The satellite tips the scales at almost 13,000 pounds (6,000 kilograms) and will use the giant rocket’s immense muscle for direct insertion into a near-Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) spot for its anticipated 15 years of operational service.
Each member of the ViaSat-3 Ka-band series of satellites will furnish over of one terabit per second—equivalent to 1,000 gigabits per second—of network capacity. This will deliver a global broadband network with sufficient bandwidth to deliver affordable, ultra-high-speed, high-quality internet and video streaming services.
This first member of the ViaSat-3 fleet will provide coverage of the Americas, with two follow-on satellites set to launch via a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V and Arianespace’s upcoming Ariane 6 to focus on the Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) Region and Asia and the Pacific (APAC) Region. ViaSat contracted the ViaSat-3 Americas launch to SpaceX back in October 2018, with an expectation that it would fly in the 2020-2022 timeframe, although delays arose following the COVID-19 pandemic, together with contractor and supply-chain issues.
In June 2021, ViaSat announced it had completed payload integration and performance testing at its Tempe, Ariz., factory and was ready to ship it to Boeing’s El Segundo, Calif., facility for integration into the satellite bus. Last September, ViaSat-3 Americas was fully integrated and by mid-October had completed its mechanical interface tests, ahead of its Final Integrated Satellite Test (FIST) late last November.
The satellite was delivered to the Space Coast last month. When fully deployed in orbit, it will boast a wing span of 144 feet (44 meters) from tip to tip across its twin solar arrays, which have the capacity to produce 30 kilowatts of electrical power.
According to ViaSat, the Falcon Heavy was selected for the ViaSat-3 Americas launch on account of its ability to emplace the satellite extremely close to geostationary orbit. This will enable it to commence In-Orbit Testing (IOT) quickly, rather than spending weeks or months maneuvering to its optimum position.
In the meantime, SpaceX is looking to No Earlier Than (NET) Monday 17 April for the orbital test flight of its integrated Starship/Super Heavy stack out of Boca Chica, Texas. The test is aiming for a 2.5-hour “window”, which opens at 7 a.m. CDT.
Powered uphill by the 33 Raptor engines of its Super Heavy core stage—with a thrust reportedly as high as 16.7 million pounds (7.5 million kilograms)—the vehicle stands to enter the record books as the most powerful rocket ever orbited, with a liftoff impulse almost twice that of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). According to SpaceX, it can lift up to 330,000 pounds (150,000 kilograms) of payload to low-Earth orbit in its fully reusable configuration and up to 500,000 pounds (250,000 kilograms) in an expendable configuration.
Last week, SpaceX reported that the 394-foot-tall (120-meter) vehicle was fully stacked at Starbase, tracking a launch rehearsal in the second week of April, “followed by Starship’s first integrated flight test ~week later, pending regulatory approval”. Late Tuesday, it tweeted that in fact no launch rehearsal would occur this week, but that teams remained “focused on launch readiness” ahead of a launch “as soon as next week”.
With liftoff of this long-awaited flight thus trending into April’s third week, the day of launch will kick off at T-99 minutes when liquid oxygen and methane begin flowing into the propellant tanks of the Super Heavy and the Starship. After fueling wraps up, the 33 Raptor engines will be chilled at T-16 minutes, ahead of the Terminal Count and “Excitement Guaranteed”—according to SpaceX—at T-0.
The 230-foot-tall (70-meter) Super Heavy will power the stack aloft for the first 2.5 minutes of flight, before separating in a fashion not unlike a Falcon 9 core stage, albeit on the most extreme of steroids. The booster will then perform a 55-second “boost-back” burn, slowing to transonic speeds at 7.5 minutes after launch, then executing a 23-second “landing” burn for a vertical splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) off the Texas Coast, a little more than eight minutes into the flight.
Meanwhile, after separation from the booster, the Starship will ignite its three Raptor engines for 6.5 minutes, before shutting down and coasting three-quarters of the way around the planet for the next 68 minutes. Like the Super Heavy, it is not intended for recovery on this inaugural test flight and will splash down in the Pacific Ocean, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) northwest of Kauai in Hawaii.