SpaceX Resumes Falcon 9 Flights, As June Launch Cadence Ramps Up


SpaceX Resumes Falcon 9 Flights, As June Launch Cadence Ramps Up

B1082 takes flight into the gathering Vandenberg darkness at 8:40 p.m. PDT Tuesday. Photo Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX successfully resumed Falcon 9 operations at 8:40 p.m. PDT Tuesday, flying a 20-strong batch of Starlink internet communications satellites out of Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., although the launch of the powerful Astra 1P geostationary communications satellite from the Space Coast was postponed until Wednesday evening due to unfavourable weather conditions. Teams will now realign for a 49-minute backup “launch window” for Astra 1P that opens at 5:35 p.m. EDT tomorrow.

Blackened and scorched from her prior launches and re-entries, B1080 must wait at least another day for her Astra 1P mission. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

With the pace of Falcon 9 missions having increased dramatically in 2024 alone, rising from a peak of nine launches per month by late 2023 to ten by the end of January, eleven and twelve by the end of March and thirteen and fourteen at the close of May, SpaceX has already—at midyear—matched the 61-flight total from the entirety of 2022. Including last night’s just-completed West Coast mission, the Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered organization is flying on average every 2.8 days, raising the likely probability that more than 130 Falcon-class vehicles may take to the skies before the next New Year’s Eve bell tolls.

As outlined yesterday by AmericaSpace, teams initially targeted back-to-back launches only six hours apart on Tuesday, with the eight-times-used B1080 booster set to fly from storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station during a 49-minute “window” opening at 5:35 p.m. EDT. Laden with the powerful Astra 1P payload for Luxembourg-headquartered SES, the mission will deliver the 11,000-pound (5,000-kilogram) communications satellite on the first leg of its trek up to geostationary altitude, where it will spend 15 years at the critical 19.2 degrees East longitude spot, its 80 Ku-band transponders facilitating the broadcast of up to 500 High Definition Television (HDTV) channels to Germany, Spain and France and 118 million households.

B1080 launches on her maiden voyage in May 2023 for Ax-2. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

But with weather conditions in Florida hovering around 55-percent-favorable, and an elevated risk of violating liftoff winds, the Cumulus Cloud Rule and the Lightning Rule, it came as little surprise when SpaceX scrubbed the launch. Fueling of the 230-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 with liquid oxygen and a highly refined form of rocket-grade kerosene (known as “RP-1”) began at T-38 minutes, as teams monitored the weather, but a length the deteriorating picture proved the decider.

However, Wednesday—and, indeed, the tail-end of this week—does not look much brighter, with barely a 30-percent likelihood of acceptable conditions, coupled with a “Moderate-High” risk that weather may also affect the recovery of B1080 in the Atlantic Ocean aboard the East Coast-based Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Just Read the Instructions”. The picture may improve slightly to around 40-percent-favorable by Thursday, although meteorological models differ.

B1080’s nine Merlin 1D+ exhaust plumes appear to flare radially, late in the CRS-30 ascent in March. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

“Dominant easterly flow will continue through the rest of this week,” noted the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base in a post-scrub update on Tuesday night, “as an easterly wave draws nearer.” This is expected to produce wind speeds in the region of 25-30 mph (40-48 km/h) for Wednesday’s launch attempt, with gusts potentially reaching 35-40 mph (56-64 km/h) within any shower activity. The predicted arrival of the easterly wave on Thursday is predicted to bring “a significant moisture increase”, with risks of violating the Cumulus Cloud Rule and Anvil Rule.

Weather on the West Coast, conversely, could hardly have been more favorable, with conditions trending 90-percent-plus “Go” as newcomer B1082 was readied for the fifth launch of her career in the year’s sixth month. B1082 is the newest addition to SpaceX’s Vandenberg fleet, having sprung onto the scene in January for the year’s first U.S. orbital launch and has since logged an additional three flights between February and May, delivering a total of 83 Starlinks and the USSF-62 payload for the U.S. Space Force, the first member of the Weather System Follow-on Microwave (WSF-M) satellite network to usher in a new generation of operational environmental monitoring from Sun-synchronous orbit. 

B1082 rises into the Vandenberg darkness to begin the 61st Falcon 9 mission of 2024. Photo Credit: SpaceX

With an expansive four-hour raft of T-0 points from 8 p.m. through 11:36 p.m. PDT Tuesday, SpaceX teams launched into the Vandenberg darkness at 8:40 p.m. as B1082 powered her way uphill with 20 new Starlinks, pushing the total number of these satellites she has launched since her maiden voyage in January to just north of 100. Eight minutes after launch, she pirouetted through the darkness to alight on the deck of the West Coast-based drone ship, “Of Course I Still Love You”.

And deployment of the 20 Starlinks—including 13 with “Direct-to-Cell” functionality, capable of permitting mobile network providers to offer “seamless global access to texting, calling and browsing”, whether “on land, lakes or coastal waters”, without the need to change hardware or firmware—occurred on time an hour later at 9:40 p.m. PDT. Since January, more than 1,000 Starlinks have now been launched and well north of 6,600 of these small, flat-packed satellites have been delivered successfully to orbit since May 2019

On-board cameras reveal a stunning vista of the Vandenberg launchscape in the moments after last night’s liftoff. Photo Credit: SpaceX

As a network, Starlink enables high-speed and low-latency internet provision to over 70 sovereign nations and international markets in North and South America, Europe, Asia, Oceania and Africa. In the month of May alone, Starlink connectivity became available in Uruguay, Indonesia and Fiji, with Sierra Leone joining the network in June, bringing to 79 the total number of sovereign nations or regions to be in full receipt of coverage.

The downsized V2 Mini satellites, first flown in February of last year, boast three to four times greater “usable” bandwidth than earlier Starlink iterations. “V2 Minis include key technologies—such as more powerful phased-array antennas and the use of E-Band for backhaul—which will allow Starlink to provide 4x more capacity per satellite than earlier iterations,” SpaceX explained. “Among other enhancements, V2 Minis are equipped with new argon Hall thrusters for on-orbit maneuvering.”

B1082 sits on the deck of the drone ship after a smooth touchdown. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Florida-based intercity operator Brightline adopted Starlink on its trains in 2023, the first passenger rail service in the world to do so. Additionally, El Salvador’s Ministry of Education has begun integrating Starlink capability into its schools to help close the digital divide between urban and remote rural communities and 50 Rwandan schools are now connected via Starlink’s high-speed internet service. As of May, Starlink reportedly had about three million registered subscribers or customers worldwide.

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