The Falcon 9 rocket has landed a rare ‘land’ landing as part of SpaceX’s first launch in California in nearly a year and a half and what a company manager considered “the start of many exciting things to come”.
Carrying an oceanographic satellite and Earth observation ~ 1200 kg (~ 2600 lbs) Sentinel 6A, a brand new Falcon 9 rocket (including a B1063 booster) built from the schedule of SpaceX’s VCV-4E SLC-4E launch pad: 17 am PST (17:17 UTC). In simple terms, it’s nothing short of amazing that SpaceX was able to launch Falcon 9 at the first application of SLC-4E – and with NASA as its customer, none the less – after nearly 18 months of inactivity.
As usual, Falcon 9 performed flawlessly, with the first phase of B1063 effortlessly signing a ~ 120-ton (~ 260,000 lbs) combined second stage, Sentinel 6A spacecraft, and payload fairness of approximately 75 km (~ 50 miles) before closing down, separating, and flipping around to get back to the launch site. The second phase of Falcon 9 fired and continued towards orbit, burning for about six minutes. After completing a three-engine reel burn and firing its central 1D Merlin a third time for landing, Falcon 9 B1063 touched down in SpaceX’s LZ-4 landing zone less than a second after the top stage of the rocket closed down in orbit.
45 minutes after that initial ‘second phase break’ (SECO), Merlin reigned Vacuum, firing for ten seconds to rotate its polar orbit and getting Sentinel 6A as close as possible to nominal operating altitude. The spacecraft deployed from Falcon 9 a few minutes later, wrapping up the mission and indicating that it had completed the 98th successful launch of Falcon 9 and the 100th mission overall, as well as the launch of SpaceX 22nd this year – a record for the company .
Sentinel 6A is now complete, SpaceX still has one more mission – the Starlink V1 L15 – set to launch as early as November 22nd, capping SpaceX’s first ever four launch month. In addition, the company has at least five more launches with reasonable launch targets in December, albeit back on the East Coast.
In 2021, though, SpaceX could have as many as four or five possible launches on the West Coast, though challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic could push one or more of those missions into 2022. A step further, commercial missions aside, SpaceX recently expressed interest from the FCC about starting polar Starlink internet satellite launches as soon as possible, suggesting that bespoke Starlink launches from Vandenberg could begin next year if the company receives regulatory approval.
In the end, it looks like SpaceX West Coast operations are back in operation and here to stay (for the time being at least) after an extraordinary year and a half of hibernation. Stay tuned for updates on the company’s next California launch.