SpaceX successfully flew its third Falcon 9 mission of May last night, as the Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered organization aims for as many as 48 missions—an average of almost one per week—by year’s end. The veteran B1058 core, teamed with a sparkling-new upper stage, rose from historic Pad 39A at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at 6:56 p.m. EDT Saturday. In doing so, the booster which first saw service last May to lift NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken towards the International Space Station (ISS) became only the third Falcon 9 since January to log an eighth mission.
Laden with 52 Starlink internet communications satellites bound for low-Earth orbit and a pair of additional “rideshares” for California-based Capella Space and Tyvak, B1058 went on to complete a smooth touchdown on the deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Of Course I Still Love You”, offshore in the Atlantic Ocean.
Despite losing one booster in mid-February and more than a month of delays which afflicted the life-leading B1049’s most recent launch, Elon Musk’s organization has achieved 15 missions in the first 20 weeks of the year; more than double the number of Falcon 9s that it had flown by this point in 2020.
And having already lofted dual Starlink batches in March and April, and the record-setting multi-payload Transporter-1 mission in late January, B1058 becomes the second Falcon 9 to have launched four times this spring. With the completion of Saturday evening’s mission, those 15 launches have been accomplished by six boosters, a remarkable footnote for SpaceX’s reusability credentials.
Including today’s flight, those launches have put 722 Starlinks into orbit, plus Turkey’s powerful Türksat-5A geostationary communications satellite and Crew-2 astronauts Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur, Aki Hoshide and Thomas Pesquet aboard Dragon Endeavour.
Additionally, Transporter-1, which rode B1058 to orbit in January, marked the largest single haul of primary payloads—143—ever lifted by a U.S. vehicle. And despite still being less than half-done, 2021 has seen the first Falcon 9 to fly a tenth time and the shortest interval of only 27 days between a pair of launches by the same booster.
Having first launched last 30 May to ferry Dragon Endeavour on her historic voyage to the space station, B1058 flew a second mission on 20 July to deliver South Korea’s ANASIS-II military communications satellite into orbit. This marked the shortest interval, only 51 days, between any two launches of a reusable orbital-class vehicle from the Space Coast, eclipsing the 54 days set by shuttle Atlantis between her first two missions in the fall of 1985.
Third and fourth flights followed in rapid-fire succession. B1058 deployed 60 Starlinks into space last 6 October—helping to break the curse of a delay-prone “Scrubtober” on the Space Coast—and set a new empirical record for the shortest interval (only 129 days) between three launches by the same orbital-class booster.
And on 6 December, she recorded the 100th fully-successful mission by a member of the Falcon 9 rocket family when she boosted the CRS-21 Dragon cargo ship to the space station. So far in 2021, she has flown on three further occasions. On 24 January, B1058 delivered Transporter-1 to orbit and on 11 March and 7 April lofted two more 60-strong batches of Starlinks.
Thirty-eight days after her seventh flight, B1058 was back in action on Saturday, with T-0 initially targeted for 6:54 p.m. EDT. The ASDS departed Port Canaveral last Tuesday, heading for a position about 390 miles (630 km) offshore in support of the mission.
Weather conditions for Saturday’s launch were 70-percent favorable, according to the 45th Weather Squadron within the newly-renamed Space Launch Delta-45 (SLD-45) at Patrick Space Force Base. In fact, the only two issues were potential violations of Liftoff Winds and the Cumulus Cloud Rule, with the Booster Recovery conditions characterized as “Moderate”.
As launch time drew closer, SpaceX slightly adjusted T-0 to 6:56 p.m. EDT and B1058 took flight right on the dot. A nominal first-stage performance and approximately 2.5-minute-long boost of B1058’s nine Merlin 1D+ engines was followed by successful Entry and Landing Burns and a beautiful touchdown on the deck of the ASDS.
It was the 14th on-point droneship landing of the year, out of 15 attempts. And although SpaceX has routinely completed as many as three Falcon 9 flights in the span of a single calendar month, to have done so three times in the first half of a month proved unprecedented.
With B1058’s job done, the single Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the second stage picked up the baton for a customary six-minute “burn” and a lengthy coasting phase, ahead of payload deployment.
First out of the gate was the first of the two rideshares: a small Capella commercial radar-imaging satellite, flying on behalf of San Francisco, Calif.-headquartered imagery firm Capella Space, which will utilize X-band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) to furnish high-contrast, low-noise and high-resolution imagery as fine as 1.6 feet (0.5 meters) for commercial clients. To achieve this high imaging resolution, Capella utilizes a 11.5-foot-diameter (3.5-meter) mesh reflector antenna.
With Capella gone, Tyvak-0130—a small optical astronomy satellite, being flown on behalf of Irvine, Calif.-based nanosatellite and CubeSat provider Tyvak—was deployed from the Falcon 9’s second stage. “Deployment of Tyvak-0130 and a Capella Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellite confirmed,” SpaceX tweeted at 7:59 p.m. EDT, a little over an hour into the mission. Capella Space later tweeted that it had successfully established contact with its newest bird and shared imagery from another of its satellites, which revealed a remarkable perspective of Pad 39A itself.
The departure of the rideshares produced a correspondingly later-than-usual deployment for the 52-strong Starlink “stack”, which was released into space about 90 minutes after launch. With Saturday’s mission, a total of 722 Starlinks have been orbited to date in 2021.