Having seen off two Falcon 9s, both from the East Coast of the United States, within four days of one another last week, SpaceX looks set—once again—to attempt as many as four launches this month, with two more Starlink flights and a critical mission to deliver a Block III Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation and timing satellite to Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) on behalf of the U.S. Space Force.
September began in fine style when the veteran B1060 core, fresh from delivering a GPS Block III satellite to orbit in June, roared aloft from historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida at 8:46 a.m. EDT Thursday. Originally targeted for Sunday, 30 August, the mission was pushed back initially to Tuesday, 1 September, on account of poor weather during pre-launch preparations, then to Thursday in order to afford SpaceX teams “additional time for data review”.
Flying the second mission of its career, B1060 smoothly placed the 12th “stack” of production-design Starlink internet communications satellites—a total of 60 satellites—into low-Earth orbit, before returning to alight perfectly on the deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Of Course I Still Love You”, positioned about 390 miles (630 km) off the Cape Canaveral coastline. B1060 returned safely to port on Sunday.
Two more Starlink missions, both expected to be laden with 60-strong stacks of satellites, are anticipated, one in mid-September and the other towards the end of the month. These will boost the total number of “production-design” Starlinks launched so far to 833, with an expectation by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk that thousands of these tiny internet sentinels will be in orbit by the mid-2020s.
On the face of it, both missions might appear like re-runs of “Groundhog Day”, with very similar pre-launch and flight regimes, but their booster cores—B1058 and B1051—carry special significance: the former previously saw service to launch NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken aboard Dragon Endeavour on 30 May, whilst the latter’s first voyage to space was the inaugural test flight of a Crew Dragon vehicle in an uncrewed capacity, Demo-1 in March 2019.
Moreover, if these booster core assignments are accurate and remain unchanged prior to launch, B1051 will become only the second Falcon 9 to log a sixth mission. First flown in March 2019 for Demo-1, it subsequently lofted Canada’s RadarSat Constellation Mission (RCM)—the most recent Falcon 9 launch out of Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.—the following June, before chalking up no fewer than three Starlink flights earlier this year, including one just last month. As for B1058, following its historic role in kicking off “Bob and Doug’s Excellent Adventure”, it has since been used in July to deliver South Korea’s ANASIS-II military communications satellite to orbit.
Closing out the month on its very last day, with a targeted launch on the evening of 30 September, is the all-new Falcon 9 core, B1062, which will loft the fourth GPS Block III satellite for the U.S. Space Force. Following a Request for Proposals (RFP) issued in June 2017 by the Air Force to launch the fourth, fifth and sixth GPS Block III missions, SpaceX ultimately was awarded the $290.5 million contract in March 2018. Although to date SpaceX has successfully delivered two other GPS Block III satellites, in December 2018 and June of this year, both of those missions were conducted under separate contracts.
Weighing an estimated 8,500 pounds (3,900 kg) and capable of a 15-year operational lifetime, these powerful satellites are built by Lockheed Martin at its customized GPS Block III facility near Denver, Colo., and GPS III-04 is destined for insertion into Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) at an altitude of 12,550 miles (20,200 km). In development by Lockheed Martin for more than a decade, the $238 million contract which included the construction of GPS III-04 was awarded by the Air Force in January 2012. Over the following years, its electronics were populated ahead of systems “power-on”, its navigational payload was integrated in October 2017 and by the summer of last year the satellite was fully assembled and undergoing the final stages of pre-launch testing.
In January 2020, the newly-created U.S. Space Force formally “called-up” GPS III-04 for launch. It was delivered from Lockheed Martin’s Waterton, Colo., facility to the Cape in mid-July aboard a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft. Upon arrival on the Space Coast, the satellite was ensconced in the Astrotech Space Operations Facility to evaluate its functionality, prepare it for propellant loading and encapsulate it in its bullet-like Falcon 9 payload fairing for launch.