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SpaceX’s fourth Falcon booster delivery this year hints at rare production uptick

For at least the fourth time in 2021, SpaceX has shipped a new Falcon booster from its Hawthorne, California headquarters and factory to an expansive test and development campus in Central Texas.

By all appearances, SpaceX’s latest delivery could imply that the company is on track to experience its first Falcon booster production uptick in four years. Thanks almost exclusively to the overwhelming success of Falcon reusability, SpaceX has been decreasing booster production year over year since 2017 while (on the whole) still significantly increasing its annual launch cadence. However, that downward booster production trend may have finally come to an end in 2021.

On July 21st, spaceflight journalist Eric Berger spotted a SpaceX Falcon booster – almost impossible to miss on the road – traveling eastbound towards El Paso on a Texas highway. Designed from the start with a maximum diameter (3.6m/12′) explicitly limited to allow Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy stages to be easily and cheaply transported by road, SpaceX has taken advantage of that capability by making Falcon rockets some of the most extensively tested launch vehicles on Earth.

Most notably, every single Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy booster and upper stage SpaceX has ever built at its Hawthorne HQ has shipped to McGregor, Texas for qualification testing before being cleared to launch. The exact nature of that qualification testing is unknown but, at minimum, every SpaceX-built stage must eventually complete a clean static fire test before the company deems it qualified for flight and ships it to one of three launch pads.

Before integrated static fire testing, SpaceX also separately tests every single Merlin 1D, Merlin Vacuum, Draco engine, and cold gas thruster before they’re installed on their respective Falcon first stage, second stage, fairing, or Dragon spacecraft back in California. However, Falcon engines, fairings, second stages, and Dragon spacecraft are all small or well-packaged enough to be unassuming on the road. Only Falcon boosters – measuring some 4m (~13 ft) wide and 56m (~190 ft) long and usually wrapped in solid white or black plastic – are routinely spotted in the wild by members of the public.

Those regular public spottings provide the only real glimpse available behind the curtain of SpaceX’s prolific rocket production. Beyond a mishmash of observations from members of the public and the occasional tidbit from CEO Elon Musk, SpaceX – a private company in a very competitive industry – provides no official information about how many Falcon stages it produces each year. That leaves it up to unaffiliated fans to collate and track that activity.

In particular, one Reddit user went to the effort of combing through a decade of those observations to tabulate SpaceX’s annual Falcon first stage production – including Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters – since 2010. From 2010 to 2017, booster production consistently grew year over year, ultimately peaking at 13 – more than one booster per month – in 2017. Since 2017, booster production has consistently declined, dropping to just five boosters completed in 2020 – the lowest figure since 2013.

Of course, despite building just five new boosters in 2020, SpaceX completed a record 26 Falcon 9 launches, demonstrating just how much of a paradigm shift booster reusability has been for the company. Notably, while booster production has drastically decreased, SpaceX still has to manufacture a new expendable upper stage for every Falcon launch, meaning that – for the most part – Hawthorne is likely as busy as – and soon to be busier than – it was around the 2016-2018 peak.

In a bit of twist, though, that booster production downtick may have bottomed out in 2020. Since May 2020, SpaceX appears to have shipped at least 8 or 9 boosters* from Hawthorne to McGregor. Less than a month ago, a new booster – believed to be Falcon 9 B1069 – went vertical in McGregor ahead of its first wet dress rehearsal and static fire. Less than three weeks later, another new Falcon booster was spotted ready for transport outside of Hawthorne – likely the same booster spotted on its way to McGregor on July 21st.

*Including F9/FH boosters B1061, B1062, B1063, B1064, B1065, B1066, B1067, and B1069

In 2021, SpaceX has delivered one Falcon Heavy (likely B1066) and two Falcon 9 boosters (B1067 and B1069) to McGregor. The mystery booster seen in Hawthorne on July 18th – now likely inside a McGregor hangar as of publishing – is the fourth Falcon first stage to roll out of Hawthorne this year. If SpaceX maintains that average over the next five months, it could ship 6 or even 7 Falcon boosters in 2021 – marking the first apparent production uptick since 2017.

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SpaceX sets new goals for Falcon booster reuse goals after ten-flight milestone

Speaking virtually at Barcelona’s 2021 Mobile World Congress (MWC), CEO Elon Musk says that SpaceX has already set its sights on even more ambitious reusability goals for Falcon rocket boosters.

Less than two months prior, booster B1051 sent 60 satellites and an upper stage on their way to orbit, simultaneously becoming the first Falcon 9 first stage to ace ten orbital-class launches and landings, crossing a mostly symbolic – but still significant – milestone years in the making. SpaceX competitors – most notably the United Launch Alliance – have often held the ten-flight mark over its head as the latest in a long line of moving goalposts used to discredit, demean, and look down upon reusable rockets and SpaceX’s efforts to realize them.

Not long before it was clear that SpaceX would hit that 10-flight target with at least one Falcon booster, competitors working overtime to rationalize a lack of substantial investment into reusable rockets shifted their goalposts again, expanding rationales to require a fleetwide average of ten flights. Instead of explaining why SpaceX’s reusability plans could never work, as many dozens of aerospace executives have assuredly done over the last 5-10 years, the new attitude du jour is to claim that SpaceX’s ability to achieve its reuse goals was never actually in doubt and that the economics of full booster reuse simply can’t make economic sense!

Now, five and half years after Falcon 9’s first successful booster landing, four years after SpaceX’s first successful booster reuse, and seven weeks after a Falcon 9 first stage’s first ten-flight milestone, Elon Musk says that some of the company’s fleet of boosters are already “slated to fly 20 or possibly 30 times.” Never one to personally rest or allow his companies to rest on their laurels, SpaceX now has a new target to strive for as teams work to ramp and sustain Falcon 9’s launch cadence at record-breaking levels.

Back before Falcon 9’s Block 5 upgrade debuted in May 2018, Musk held a press conference in which he made it abundantly clear that it was SpaceX’s “unequivocal intent” to launch new Falcon boosters up to 10 times without refurbishment. Three years later, although SpaceX ultimately abandoned plans to recover and reuse Falcon 9’s upper stage to prioritize Starship development, Musk’s dream of cutting the cost of launch by a full magnitude has almost been realized.

Technically, if SpaceX had developed a reusable upper stage, Falcon 9 as it stands today could feasibly cost just ~10% of its list price (~$6 million. Factoring in the cost of a new expendable upper stage for each mission, the actual cost of a modern Falcon 9 launch with a flight-proven booster and payload fairing is closer to ~$18M. However, in the same June 2021 interview, Musk confirmed that the cost of Falcon 9 operations – as in refurbishment, recovery, consumables, and any other recurring work – is just 10% of the cost of launch, effectively confirming that Falcon 9’s Block 5 upgrade really did create a rocket booster that requires virtually no refurbishment.

B1051, SpaceX’s first ten-flight Falcon 9 booster. (Richard Angle)

Back in Musk’s 2018 conference call, he also noted that beyond plans for up to ten flights without refurbishment, Falcon boosters could feasibly be made to fly dozens or even 100+ times with occasional in-depth maintenance – not unlike modern aircraft. Three years later, Musk is now talking about launching certain Falcon boosters 20 or 30 times, while something approximating the recurring maintenance he once described has yet to crop up.

It’s possible, in other words, that SpaceX has found that Falcon 9 Block 5 boosters – which do need some small amount of refurbishment and inspection after each launch – can actually be flown 20 or 30 times without major rework. Ultimately, only time will tell, but Falcon 9 B1051’s 11th flight is expected – this time from the West Coast – as early as late July or August 2021, carrying SpaceX’s first or second dedicated batch of polar Starlink satellites. B1051 arrived at Vandenberg Air/Space Force Base (VAFB) in late June about a month after Falcon 9 B1049 – likely set to become the second booster to complete ten launches.

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SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is dominating global orbital launches in 2021

Less than three days after SpaceX completed its 20th successful Falcon 9 launch of 2021, a small Long March 2D rocket carried the country of China past the same 20-flight milestone.

Excluding SpaceX and China, the rest of the world combined completed its 20th orbital launch hours before SpaceX when US startup Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket successfully flew for the second time. In simpler terms, relative to any other country, space agency, or company, SpaceX has led the world in orbital launches for the first half of 2021 – the first time in history a single company has managed that feat.

Perhaps more importantly, as CEO Elon Musk has frequently noted over the last several months, total mass launched to orbit is an even more valuable measure of success and in that regard, SpaceX leads the rest of the world combined. In the first half of 2021, SpaceX has successfully launched more than 230 metric tons (~500,000 lb) of spacecraft, Dragons, space station cargo, and astronauts to orbit and grown its Starlink internet constellation by almost 800 satellites.

As of July 3rd, the rest of the world combined – including China, Russia, India, and three other US providers – have launched approximately 175 tons (385,000 lb) to orbit in 2021. According to Musk, SpaceX effectively doubled the rest of the world’s payload mass to orbit in 2020, meaning that other launch providers – mostly led by China – are significantly more competitive in 2021, though they’ve still launched ~25% less mass than SpaceX.

As far as specific launch vehicles go, SpaceX also retains an almost unbeatable lead with Falcon 9. Only Russia comes vaguely close with 11 successful Soyuz 2.1 launches so far, followed by China’s Long March 4 with 7 flights this year.

Nevertheless, on July 1st, a Russian Soyuz 2.1 rocket launched OneWeb’s eighth batch of low Earth orbit (LEO) internet satellites, pushing the rest of the non-China/SpaceX world to 21 successful launches in 2021. China’s July 3rd launch was its 20th successful orbital mission but the country is set to launch again – this time carrying a weather satellite – as early as July 4th. Given China’s ambitious manifest, it’s possible that SpaceX won’t catch up before the end of 2021, but the lone company and its reusable Falcon 9 workhorse rocket are still on pace to launch 40 times (or more) this year alone.

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SpaceX launches second dedicated rideshare mission

Falcon 9 Transporter 2 launch

WASHINGTON — SpaceX launched 88 satellites on a Falcon 9 June 30 on the company’s second dedicated smallsat rideshare mission.

The Falcon 9 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 3:31 p.m. Eastern, more than halfway into a nearly hourlong launch window because of weather. A launch attempt the day before was scrubbed when a private helicopter entered restricted airspace minutes before the scheduled liftoff.

Deployment of the payload of 88 satellites started nearly 58 minutes after liftoff, once the upper stage performed a second burn of its engine to place it into a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of nearly 550 kilometers. The satellites, from a variety of government and commercial customers, were released over half an hour.

The mission, named Transporter-2 by SpaceX, was the company’s second dedicated smallsat rideshare mission, after the Transporter-1 mission in January. The earlier flight carried 143 satellites, but SpaceX said the total payload mass for Transporter-2 was greater than that of Transporter-1. The company did not disclose specific payload mass figures for either mission.

SpaceX established its smallsat rideshare program nearly two years ago, offering low-cost launches on dedicated Falcon 9 missions like Transporter-2 as well as on launches of its Starlink satellites. It has attracted significant interest from both companies and government agencies.

The Transporter-2 payload manifest featured synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites from three competing companies: Capella, Iceye and Umbra. HawkEye 360 and Kleos, two companies deploying constellations to perform radio-frequency tracking, each had satellites on this mission, as did PlanetIQ and Spire, which collect GPS radio occultation data for use in weather forecasting.

Other commercial customers included Astrocast, which is developing an internet-of-things constellation, and Satellogic, which has a multi-launch agreement with SpaceX for launching its imaging satellites. SpaceX flew three of its own Starlink satellites on the launch, which will join 10 Starlink satellites launched into polar orbit on Transporter-1.

The Pentagon’s Space Development Agency (SDA) had four satellites on Transporter-2. Two Mandrake-2 satellites — originally intended to launch on Transporter-1 before being damaged in prelaunch processing — feature optical crosslinks and will be used to test technologies for future low Earth orbit military satellite. Two cubesats built by General Atomics will also test optical communications between satellites and with drones. SDA has a fifth payload on Loft Orbital’s YAM-3 satellite.

NASA flew two smallsats on Transporter-2, including a pathfinder for a cubesat constellation called TROPICS, for Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats. TROPICS Pathfinder is identical to the six TROPICS satellites that Astra will launch on its Rocket 3 small launch vehicle in 2022 and will enable full testing of the satellite design in advance of the deployment of the constellation.

Launch cadence and reusability

Transporter-2 was SpaceX’s 20th Falcon 9 mission of the year, with six months yet to go. In only two years has SpaceX conducted more orbital launches: 21 in 2018 and 26 in 2020. The company is on track to shatter the record set last year, even with an anticipated slowdown of launches in July and August.

A key factor in that high launch cadence is reusability. The Falcon 9 booster used for Transporter-2 was making its eighth flight, concluding with a landing at Cape Canaveral’s Landing Zone 1. Its first launch was exactly one year ago, when it launched a GPS 3 satellite, and was also used for launching Turksat 5A and five Starlink missions before Transporter-2. Other Falcon 9 boosters have flown up to 10 times.

While SpaceX previously set a goal of 10 flights per booster, company officials have in recent months suggested those boosters could fly more than 10 times. “We’ve got boosters now that have flown 10 times, and some that are slated to fly 20 or possibly 30 times,” Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of SpaceX, said in a June 29 appearance at the Mobile World Congress.

“With Falcon 9, we’ve achieved I think the most efficient reusability of any rocket to date,” he said, but added that SpaceX will take reusability “to another level” with its Starship vehicle. That vehicle, whose first orbital launch Musk now says will take place in the “next few months,” is intended to be reflown without any significant refurbishment, like an airliner.

“The Holy Grail for rocketry is rapidly reusable reliable rockets,” he said.

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SpaceX rocket lands on land after 88-satellite rideshare launch

For the first time this year, a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster has landed back on land after supporting the US East Coast’s third polar launch in half a century.

Known as Transporter-2, the mission is SpaceX’s second dedicated rideshare launch as part of its own Smallsat Program. Transporter-1 smashed the all-time record for the number of satellites flown on a single rocket, successfully carrying 143 spacecraft into orbit in January 2021. Six months later, Transporter-2 lifted off from Cape Canaveral at 3:31 pm EDT (17:31 UTC) on June 30th, approximately six days later than originally planned.

Unspecified issues – perhaps related to Falcon 9’s payload fairing – triggered a five-day delay from June 24th to June 29th, when a last-second airspace violation forced SpaceX to abort the launch and try again on June 30th. Finally, in spite of stormy weather, everything came together for a launch attempt late in that Tuesday window.

Flying for the eighth time in 12 months, Falcon 9 booster B1060 aced its role in the mission, boosting Falcon 9’s expendable upper stage, payload fairing, and ~88 satellites out of Earth’s atmosphere and on their way to orbit. Flying for the third time, both of the Falcon 9’s reused fairing halves also did their job, protecting those satellites from the elements and aerothermal stress on the ground and during ascent.

(Richard Angle)

Transporter-2 was SpaceX’s 20th orbital launch of 2021, a cadence that could enable as many as 40 launches this year. That also means that barring surprises, SpaceX could match its annual record (26 launches; set in 2020) just eight months into 2021, all but guaranteeing that the company will smash that record before the end of the year. As of June 30th, SpaceX has now completed 36 orbital launches and 35 Falcon 9 first stage landings in the last 12 months, losing only one booster in the process.

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Falcon 9 launch scrub highlights airspace integration problems

Falcon 9 Transporter-2

WASHINGTON — A SpaceX launch scrubbed in the final seconds of its countdown when an aircraft violated restricted airspace June 29 has aligned both the launch industry and the airline industry in their criticism of the Federal Aviation Administration.

SpaceX was preparing to launch a Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 2:56 p.m. Eastern. The Transporter-2 mission is carrying 88 satellites on SpaceX’s second dedicated smallsat rideshare missions, supporting customers ranging from NASA and the Pentagon’s Space Development Agency to several companies developing remote sensing and communications constellations.

However, the countdown was stopped 11 seconds before liftoff because of a “fouled range,” or range violation of some kind. While SpaceX had nearly a one-hour launch window for this mission, the company scrubbed the launch minutes later because it would not have time to prepare the vehicle for another launch attempt. The launch has been tentatively rescheduled for the same time June 30.

SpaceX did not disclose what caused the range violation and subsequent scrub, although the host of the company’s webcast speculated it could be an aircraft. Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of SpaceX, confirmed that in a tweet minutes after the scrub.

“Unfortunately, launch is called off for today, as an aircraft entered the ‘keep out zone’, which is unreasonably gigantic,” he wrote. “There is simply no way that humanity can become a spacefaring civilization without major regulatory reform. The current regulatory system is broken.”

Musk has expressed similar criticisms of the FAA’s “broken” regulatory system in the past, but that focused on the launch licensing process rather than airspace restrictions. Musk’s latest criticism mirrors that from the commercial aviation industry, which for years has complained that the size and duration of airspace restrictions for launches cause flight delays and disrupt airline schedules.

The issue came up most recently at a June 16 hearing of the House Transportation Committee’s aviation subcommittee, which revisited several issues regarding the FAA’s oversight of commercial space transportation.

“FAA has also made progress in developing procedures, technologies and industry coordinations to reduce inefficiencies in safely integrating commercial space users into the National Airspace System,” said Heather Krause, director of physical infrastructure at the Government Accountability Office, in testimony at the hearing. “These efforts are promising, but full and efficient integration of all users of the National Airspace System is years away and will require continued work and focus.”

Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), chair of the subcommittee, asked if the FAA was making sufficient progress toward that goal. Krause responded that the FAA had taken “a number of steps” since a 2019 review that highlighted inefficiencies. “It is a complex issue to work through, and technologies and systems need to be further developed so that there’s better data to be able to assess risk.”

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chair of the full committee, criticized the FAA for slow progress in one specific tool, called the Space Data Integrator, which is intended to provide information on launch activities more quickly to air traffic controllers and pilots, reducing the size and duration of airspace restrictions. He asked Wayne Monteith, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, about the timeline for development of the tool, noting it had been discussed at a hearing five years ago.

Monteith responded that progress had accelerated on the Space Data Integrator since the project was handed over to Teri Bristol, chief operating officer of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization. “We expect in the next few months to have the first operational tests of it,” he said. “We will be taking live data and ingesting it into our system with the goal of reducing the airspace that must be segregated and really integrate commercial space into the system,” he said.

One of the critics of current approaches to restrict airspace for launches has been the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). At the hearing, Capt. Joe Depete, president of ALPA, called for “collaboration by the aviation and aerospace sectors” to develop an airspace integration strategy.

“We agree that there is a better way,” DePete tweeted in response to Musk after the launch scrub, offering to work with SpaceX, the FAA and others “to support the safe integration of all national airspace users.”

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SpaceX adds batch of polar Starlink satellites to rideshare launch

Orbit details shared by SpaceX suggest that the company’s second dedicated Smallsat Rideshare launch – known as Transporter-2 – will also carry a second batch of polar Starlink satellites.

SpaceX launched the first batch of ten polar Starlink satellites in January 2021 as part of Transporter-1, co-manifesting them alongside a record-breaking 133 other spacecraft for a variety of companies and institutions. The mission was ultimately a major success, breaking records and demonstrating that SpaceX is serious about its Smallsat Program. Much like company executives promised in 2019 and 2020, SpaceX really does appear to have firm plans for semi-regular rideshare missions that will give customers two or more launch windows per year.

Now scheduled to launch no earlier than 2:56 pm EDT (16:56 EDT) on Tuesday, June 29th, Transporter-2 is the second in a series of Falcon 9 rideshare launches currently scheduled every six months or less over the next several years.

While Transporter-2 wont beat the unprecedented number of satellites launched on on Transporter-1, SpaceX says it will still “launch 88 spacecraft to orbit” and – more importantly – carry more customer mass. In other words, Transporter-2 will carry roughly 50% fewer satellites, each of which will weigh substantially more on average.

Ordering directly through SpaceX, Smallsat Rideshare Program begins at $1 million for up to 200 kg (~440 lb) to Sun Synchronous Orbit (SSO; around 500 km or 300 mi). A majority of small satellites weigh significantly less than 200 kilograms but if a customer manages to use all of their allotment, the total cost of a SpaceX rideshare launch could be as low as $5000 per kilogram – incredibly cheap relative to almost any other option. For a dedicated launch to SSO on a Rocket Lab Electron or Astra Rocket 3.0 rocket using every last gram of available performance, the same customer would end up paying a minimum of $25,000 to $37,500 per kilogram to orbit.

Befitting the premium price tag, a dedicated launch on one of a growing number of small orbital-class rockets does carry benefits like direct orbit insertion, specialized payload handling, and more schedule control. A rideshare with dozens of other satellites is more akin to taking a bus, delivering the lowest prices possible at the cost of strict departure times and a one-size-fits-all approach to drop-offs.

An artist rendering of Transporter-2 payload deployment. (Exolaunch)

Given that SpaceX’s Transporter program is on track to orbit more than twice as many satellites in six months as Rocket Lab’s small Electron rocket has launched on 17 successful missions spread over more than three years, it’s safe to say that a large portion of prospective smallsat owners and builders have concluded that the cost savings provided by rideshares far outweigh the inconvenience.

Beyond Transporter-2, SpaceX is already working to launch Transporter-3 in December 2021, Transporter-4 as soon as March 2022, Transporter-5 in June 2022, Transporter-6 in October 2022, and at least three other dedicated rideshare launches tentatively scheduled in 2023.

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SpaceX Falcon 9 booster fleet assembles for West Coast Starlink launches

For the second time in a month, SpaceX has shipped a heavily flown Falcon 9 booster from Cape Canaveral, Florida to its West Coast launch facilities.

Falcon 9 booster B1051’s June 24th arrival at Vandenberg Air/Space Force Base (VAFB) is perhaps the best sign yet that SpaceX means to almost immediately reach – and sustain – an orbital launch cadence not seen on the West Coast in decades. Just four weeks prior to B1051’s second appearance at the California launch range, B1049 became the first Falcon 9 booster to arrive at Vandenberg in more than half a year.

B1051’s arrival means that SpaceX now has two Falcon 9 boosters on hand to support dedicated polar Starlink launches out of Vandenberg – launches that could begin as early as next month. First teased by SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell in April, preparations for that July launch target have been well underway for months. Several major pieces have fallen into place in rapid succession at the same time.

A few weeks after Shotwell’s comments, SpaceX signed a lease for new dock space and rocket processing facilities and moved its years-old West Coast recovery operations from Port of Los Angeles to adjacent Port of Long Beach facilities soon after. Around May 27th, Falcon 9 booster B1049 was trucked into VAFB.

On June 10th, drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) began a more than 5000-mile (~8000 km) journey from Port Canaveral, Florida to Port of Long Beach, California, where it would eventually recover boosters hundreds of miles downrange after dedicated polar Starlink launches. After waiting for several days in a nearby harbor, the massive SpaceX recovery platform was carried through the Panama Canal on the back of an even larger transport ship on June 25th and is now en route to California – ETA: July 6th.

Falcon 9 B1049, May 9th. (Richard Angle)
Falcon 9 B1051, May 12th. (Richard Angle)

Once OCISLY arrives, the only real uncertainties left will be readying the drone ship for recovery operations after a long journey and ensuring that SpaceX’s VAFB SLC-4E launch pad is ready to go after six months of inactivity. That leaves Falcon 9 second stage, payload fairing, and satellite testing, delivery, and integration – a routine process for SpaceX after 30 successful Starlink launches.

With both Falcon 9 boosters B1049 and B1051 at hand, SpaceX will feasibly be able to push SLC-4E to its design limits with monthly Starlink launches. Having respectively achieved record turnarounds of 61 and 38 days between flights, SpaceX’s West Coast Starlink launch campaign is unlikely to suffer from a lack of booster availability anytime soon.

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SpaceX’s 20th Falcon 9 launch of 2021 slips to Monday

SpaceX has announced an unspecified delay for its second dedicated “Transporter” rideshare mission and 20th Falcon 9 launch of the year.

Recently scheduled to launch no earlier than (NET) 2:56 pm EDT (18:56 UTC) on Friday, June 25th, a one-day delay from an earlier June 24th target, some of Transporter-2’s dozens of customers have reported that SpaceX has pushed the launch to Monday, June 28th. Carrying anywhere from 85-100+ small satellites for at least two-dozen separate companies and institutions, the process of wrangling all those spacecraft onto a single rocket for a relatively inflexible launch window scheduled days or weeks in advance is understandably challenging.

Of the dozens of spacecraft onboard, at least 5-10 different manufacturers and spacecraft buses – all with slightly different capabilities, requirements, and limitations – must cooperate for a massive rideshare mission like Transporter-2 to happen at all. It’s not entirely clear how SpaceX manages its Smallsat Program missions but more likely than not, in the event that even one of those 80-100+ payloads malfunctions before launch, the entire mission likely has to stand down to either troubleshoot or remove the misbehaving satellite.

If that process takes a day or two, an issue with one satellite could quickly impact multiple others in the event that certain payloads have more sensitive margins than others. Some might need to have onboard batteries recharged after a certain number of delays. More so, the longer that ~100 different satellites are sitting in a rocket on the ground, the likelier it is that issues will crop up. Put simply, with mega-rideshares, even the smallest issue can rapidly snowball.

An artist rendering of Transporter-2 payload deployment. (Exolaunch)

All the above doesn’t even factor in the fact that rockets themselves are highly complex systems that are equally liable to suffer delays at any point during a launch flow. In the case of Transporter-2, while SpaceX was very vague, a June 24th update stating that the “team is taking additional time for pre-launch checkouts” points to issues on the launch side of things. According to a Reddit user claiming to be one of Transporter-2’s customers, SpaceX reportedly told passengers it had decided to reinspect Falcon 9’s payload fairing, potentially requiring rework if issues are discovered.

The multi-day delay could be explained if that reinspection means that SpaceX has to de-mate the Falcon 9 fairing and second stage, raise the assembly vertical, and separate the fairing’s two halves and payload stack. After inspections, that process would then have to be repeated in reverse. easily taking a full day or two from de-mate to re-mate with the Falcon 9 second stage.

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SpaceX rocket ready for second rideshare launch with 100+ small satellites

For the second time in six months, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is ready to launch around 100+ small satellites into low orbit as part of a rideshare mission for dozens of companies and institutions.

Known as Transporter-2, the mission is SpaceX’s second dedicated launch under the Smallsat Rideshare Program it established in 2019. In 2020, SpaceX began its first launches under the program and delivered eight Earth observation satellites to orbit for Planet and Blacksky as co-passengers on three Starlink missions. A fourth Starlink rideshare was later completed with payloads from Capella Space and Tyvak in May 2021.

In January 2021, Falcon 9 successfully launched 143 small satellites into orbit on a mission known as Transport-1, setting an all-time record for the number of spacecraft flown on a single rocket and emphasizing just how serious and competitive SpaceX’s Smallsat Program really is.

Six months after that milestone mission, Transporter-2 is now ready to launch. On June 22nd, a Falcon 9 rocket was loaded with hundreds of tons of liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene (RP1) and flight-proven booster B1060 successfully ignited its nine Merlin 1D engines, completing a routine wet dress rehearsal (WDR) and static fire test. Transporter-2 will be B1060’s eighth spaceflight and orbital-class launch in less than a year, representing an average of one flight every ~45 days or six weeks.

Falcon 9 booster B1060 launched for the seventh time on April 29th. (Richard Angle)

Now cleared for flight, SpaceX will have since brought Falcon 9 horizontal and rolled the rocket back to its Cape Canaveral LC-40 pad’s integration hangar. Once there, Transporter-2’s payload ‘stack’ – already encapsulated in a payload fairing – will be installed on top of Falcon 9’s expendable second stage and the rocket will be rolled back out to the pad and brought vertical a second time.

It remains to be seen what exactly Transporter-2 will be carrying to orbit. Transporter-1 carried 133 customer spacecraft and 10 of SpaceX’s own Starlink satellites with a collective liftoff mass of around five metric tons (~11,000 lb). The true mass is unknown but the Falcon 9 booster supporting the mission had to land on a drone ship ~550 km (~340 mi) downrange. Transporter-2, however, will reportedly involve an increasingly rare return-to-launch-site (RTLS) landing for Falcon 9 booster B1060, implying that its payloads may be substantially lighter than its predecessor’s.

Based on a rough accounting of known Transporter-2 payloads from rideshare managers Spaceflight, Exolaunch, and others, the mission could feasibly launch with 100+ small satellites onboard. Relative to Transporter-1, the most obvious weight-saving solution would be to exclude Starlink satellites, which likely represented more than a third of missions payload mass at liftoff. Given that SpaceX also appears to be preparing for a flurry of dedicated polar Starlink launches from its West and East Coast pads that could begin as early as July, it’s fairly safe to assume that Transporter-2 will be Starlink-free.

Ultimately, Transporter-2 appears to be on track for a 2:56 pm EDT (18:56 UTC) launch on Friday, June 25th. Stay tuned for updates and webcast details.

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