You could be forgiven for thinking something Already. Wow hit the Space Coast on Friday, as the six-times-flown Falcon 9 roared upward from the Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 floor at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 7:38 pm EDT, right at the opening of its 38-minute “launch window.” Packed with a pair of geostationary-bound satellites for Luxembourg-based telecommunications provider SES, this is SpaceX’s second mission of St. Patrick’s Day, which established a new record of just four hours between a pair of Falcon 9 flights.
Earlier today, another booster—the eight times used B1071—lifted from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., carrying a “batch” of Starlink internet communications satellites. Launched at 12:26 pm PDTB1071 powered the 230-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 upward for the opening 2.5 minutes of the mission, before separating and pirouetting to an on-point touchdown on the expansive deck of the West Coast-based Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Siempre Mahal Kita”, located offshore in the Pacific Ocean.
With B1071 out of the way, the Falcon 9 second stage performed a standard six-minute “burn” of its Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine to deliver the 52-satellite Starlink payload—totaling 35,500 pounds (16,100 kilograms)—into orbit . The deployment took place about 15 minutes after liftoff and the satellites will be positioned at an orbital inclination of 70 degrees, at an altitude of 350 miles (570 kilometers).
It marks the ninth Starlink mission of 2023, which has seen 440 of these flat-packed internet communications satellites put into orbit this year. All told, 4,103 “production-design” Starlinks flew of 76 dedicated flights since May 2019.
Starlink now facilitates high-speed and low-latency internet provision in 50 sovereign countries and international markets, covering North and South America, Europe, Asia, Oceania and Africa. Just last month, Iceland, Rwanda and the Philippines—the first Starlink clients in Southeast Asia—officially signed up to the network.
Attention turns to Florida and the Cape’s SLC-40, which is preparing to host its tenth Falcon 9 launch in 2023. The five times used B1069 corewhich flew as recently as last month, is loaded with dual-stacked SES-18 and SES-19 geostationary satellites, flying on behalf of Luxembourg-based telecommunications provider SES.
B1069 enters SpaceX’s growing booster fleet in December 2021. Almost lost after her first flight in an uplifting ASDS touchdown, she underwent major repairs—including a new suite of Merlin 1D+ first-stage engines—and went on to fly three more missions in 2022.
He raised 54 Starlinks into orbit in Augustfollowed by Eutelsat’s Hotbird 13F geostationary-bound communications satellite in mid-October and 40 broadband satellites early December for OneWeb based in London, England. A fifth flight just last month saw him deliver another Starlink batch to the Falcon 9 fleet’s 200th fully successful launch.
The opening “launch window” is set to open Friday at 7:38 pm EDT and last 38 minutes, with a backup opportunity opening at the same time Saturday night and lasting 37 minutes. An early launch on Friday promises to set a new SpaceX record of four hours and 12 minutes between two Falcon 9 flights, surpassing the current “personal best”. set last October 5between launching in Florida of Dragon Endurance and Crew-5’s Nicole Mann, Josh Cassada, Koichi Wakata and Anna Kikina—up for a five-month stay on the International Space Station (ISS)—and a Vandenberg Starlink mission, seven hours and ten minutes later.
Efforts to break this record have already been attempted in 2023. Hope to launch pairs of back-to-back missions 35 minutes apart in January and 53 minutes apart last month came to nothing, thanks to schedule difficulties, technical problems and bad weather.
In preparation for tonight’s launch, the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Just Read the Instructions”, sailed out of Port Canaveral on Sunday and is positioned about 410 miles (660 kilometers) offshore in the Atlantic Ocean . Weather conditions for Friday were expected to be 80-percent-favorable, according to the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base, but were forecast to deteriorate significantly to just 35-percent-favorable for attempts by backup launch Saturday.
As the next cold front approaches Florida from the west, high pressure in the Atlantic will retreat. “The front will lay across the Florida Panhandle during the night,” said the 45th. “This set up will bring southerly winds, moving to the southeast and it will be rough in the late afternoon and evening behind the sea breeze.”
Potential showstoppers on Friday night include the danger posed by near-surface air lift. But as a cold front moves into East Central Florida on Saturday, the 45th explained that weather conditions are “deteriorating”, with high chances of showers, storms and increasing cloud cover.
But Mother Nature is not to be neglected. “Falcon 9 vertical at SLC-40,” SpaceX tweeted at 5 pm EDT, then warned: “Teams are monitoring the air at the launch site.”
Taking full advantage of this favorable weather, B1069 roared off at 7:38 pm EDT, seizing the new launch record by flying just four hours and 12 minutes after its predecessor B1071 left Vandenberg. Eight minutes later, blackened and burned from his sixth ascent and high-energy re-entry, he landed safely on the deck of the drone ship, ending SpaceX’s sixth launch of March and 18th mission of 2023.
In the meantime, Falcon 9’s second stage continues to push upward, its Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine executing a pair of “burns” to deliver the SES-18 and SES-19 twins to their dropoff point for Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO). The satellites are scheduled to be deployed five minutes apart, with the top satellite in the stack (SES-18) expected to leave the dark space in 32 minutes after launch and the lower satellite (SES- 19) because of what to do. also at 37 minutes.
They will use their on-board propulsion assets to position themselves in their operational orbits, with SES-18 targeting 103.05 degrees West longitude in June and SES-19 about 134.9 degrees West. Built by Northrop Grumman Corp.the nearly identical satellites will use GeoStar-3’s “bus” capabilities and carry ten C-band transponders to provide digital television broadcasting to nearly 120 million homes.
These two satellites are part of a group of four SES birds—of which the first pair, SES-20 and SES-21board the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V to orbit early last fall—to lead an ongoing campaign to accelerate SES’s C-band clearing plan and meet the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) goal of freeing up spectrum for 5G terrestrial wireless service. SpaceX was chosen in June 2020 as the launch service provider for the SES-18 and SES-19 missions.
With six launches completed in the last two weeks, SpaceX expects up to three more flights in the coming days. It could possibly end March as the first eight-launch (or even nine-launch) month on record.
A pair of East Coast Starlink missions are tentatively scheduled for a week or so in the last ten days of the month, followed by the first launch of “Tranche 0” of the Transport and Tracking Layer for the Space Development Agency (SDA) from Vandenberg. That could see March become the first month to see three Falcon 9 launches from the West Coast.
Tranche 0 will form the basis of an eventual “constellation” of 300-500 low-orbiting experimental satellites to provide ground-based warfighters with “precise, resilient, low-latency military data and connectivity worldwide”, including the Wide Field of View (WFOV) infrared sensor for infrared missile tracking. Contracts for Tranche 0 were signed with SpaceX in January 2021 for an estimated total cost of $150.45 million.