CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX launched its second rocket in less than 24 hours on Saturday night (Dec. 18), delivering a Turkish communications satellite into orbit before capping off the successful mission with a landing at sea.
A 230-foot-tall (70 meters) Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Space Launch Complex 40 here at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 10:58 p.m. EST (0358 GMT on Dec. 19), at the beginning of a planned 90-minute window, carrying the Turksat 5B satellite into space.
Approximately nine minutes later, the rocket’s first stage returned to Earth, touching down on the deck of SpaceX‘s newest drone ship, “A Shortfall of Gravitas.” The ship is one of three massive floating landing pads that the California-based aerospace company uses to recover its rockets. The other two — named “Of Course I Still Love You” and “Just Read the Instructions” — are carrying out missions of their own, marking the first time ever that all three drone ships are deployed at the same time.
“Falcon 9 has successfully lifted off from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force station carrying a satellite to geosynchronous transfer orbit,” SpaceX’s principal integration engineer John Insprucker said during a live webcast of the launch.
Falcon 9’s first stage has landed on the A Shortfall of Gravitas droneship pic.twitter.com/CDTVuHOBtyDecember 19, 2021
Going into the launch tonight, forecasters at the U.S. Space Force’s 45th Space Delta, which oversees launch weather operations, predicted a 80% chance of favorable conditions for launch, with the main concern being the potential for cumulus clouds. Mother nature cooperated and it was a crystal clear night here in Florida, with a brilliant full moon shining overhead.
The night sky lit up as the previously flown Falcon 9 leapt off the launch pad. The glow of the rocket’s nine first-stage engines turned night into day as the rocket climbed into the clouds hanging over the Space Coast. The rumble of the engines could be heard long after the rocket disappeared from sight.
Tonight’s mission marked the 30th launch of the year for SpaceX, and the third flight for this particular booster. Known as B1067, this first stage is one of the newest members of SpaceX’s fleet of Falcon 9 rockets.
Making its debut in June of this year, B1067 has previously carried two different Dragon spacecraft into orbit — the uncrewed CRS-22 cargo resupply mission in June, followed by the Crew-3 mission that launched four astronauts to the International Space Station in November. For its third act, the booster is lofting a 9,900-pound (4,490 kilograms) satellite into space for Turkey.
Powered by more than 1.7 million pounds of thrust from its nine first-stage Merlin 1D engines, the Falcon 9 deposited the Turksat 5B satellite into orbit where it will operate for approximately 15 years, providing broadband coverage to Turkey, the Middle East, Europe and portions of Africa.
SpaceX kicked off 2021 with the launch of the spacecraft’s counterpart, Turksat 5A, in January. The satellite duo is part of Turkey’s efforts to expand its presence in space. The launches are considered controversial, with activists protesting outside SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, citing Turkey’s role in a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan as cause to boycott the mission. A protest was held in Oct. 2020, but it was unsuccessful at stopping the launch.
About nine minutes after the Falcon 9 leaped off the pad, the rocket’s first stage landed on the drone ship, marking the third successful launch and landing for this particular booster. The landing also marked the 99th successful touchdown for a returning SpaceX booster, since the company recovered its first rocket in 2015. Of those recoveries, 76 have been at sea.
Built by Airbus, the Turksat 5B spacecraft separated from the Falcon 9’s upper stage approximately 32 minutes after liftoff. From its orbital perch, more than 22,000 miles (36,00 kilometers) above Earth, the satellite will beam down broadband coverage, in both the Ku- and Ka-bands.
Turksat 5B is slightly heavier than its predecessor (Turksat 5A), which is currently in its orbital parking spot, which it reached thanks to a set of onboard plasma thrusters that both spacecraft have. These thrusters don’t use traditional fuel, but instead, rely on electrical energy from the spacecraft’s solar panels.
The thrusters are more energy-efficient than the traditional thrusters that rely on monopropellants (like hydrazine) but produce less thrust, so it takes a bit longer to reach its orbital parking spot. Once in its parking spot, the Turksat 5B satellite will provide more than 50 gigabits per second of capacity, according to Airbus.
Saturday night’s launch marks the second launch for SpaceX in less than 16 hours. Before sunrise on the West Coast, one of the company’s oldest boosters, a first stage known as B1051, set a new flight record for a single booster and it launched and landed for the 11th time.
To date, SpaceX has flown two different boosters a total of 10 times, and two additional boosters a total of nine times. It’s oldest and most prolific boosters — B1051 and B1049 — are both stationed on the West Coast where they are helping SpaceX launch its burgeoning Starlink internet constellation.
Comprised of more than 1,900 flat-paneled broadband satellites, Starlink aims to connect people around the globe who currently have little-to-no internet access.
Following a successful liftoff, B1051 deposited a stack of 52 Starlink satellites into space. After that, company engineers turned their sights to Florida and the Turksat 5B payload. The mission blasted off right on time, marking a new company record of shortest time in between launches.
SpaceX is not slowing down yet, as the company has one more Falcon 9 launch planned. Early Tuesday morning (Dec. 21), a different Falcon 9 rocket will ferry a cargo Dragon spacecraft into space for NASA. That mission will close out the year for SpaceX, bringing the total number of launches this year up to 31.
The company’s previous record for most launches in a single year was set in 2020, with 26 rockets launched. This year the company had plans of launching an estimated 40 rockets.
The ability to launch so many rockets is due to the design of the Falcon 9. The current iteration flying today debuted in 2018. Known as the Block 5, it features 1.7 million pounds of first-stage thrust as well as some other upgrades that make it capable of rapid reuse.
When the upgraded Falcon 9 debuted, company officials speculated that each first-stage booster would fly as many as 10 times with minor refurbishments in between, and potentially as many as 100 times before retirement. Experience has shown that the rockets are capable of flying well beyond that 10 flight threshold.
Saturday’s flight is the 133rd overall flight of a Falcon 9 rocket, with the vast majority of those being re-flown rockets. In fact, only one of SpaceX’s 30 missions so far in 2021 was on a brand new rocket.
In addition to the souped-up version of the Falcon 9, SpaceX has a fleet of recovery vessels it uses to catch its returning boosters. A trio of massive drone ships, two stationed in Florida and one in California, are tasked with serving as a massive, floating landing pad.
With each launch, the company is inching towards a major milestone: its 100th successful recovery.
The company is continuing its efforts to recover the payload fairings, with the help of specialized ships it deploys to snag the fairings after launch.
Those two pieces of hardware account for roughly 10% of the rocket’s overall price tag, according to company representatives. By recovering and reflying them, along with the first stage boosters, SpaceX can reduce launch costs.
The success of fairing recovery efforts is typically announced following the launch, but each of the fairings used in Saturday’s missions has flown before. With any luck, they will again.