It looked like all systems go at SpaceX’s West Coast launch pad at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, after the spaceflight company announced Saturday morning that its Falcon 9 had rolled out to the launch site for its intended flight on Sunday.
Falcon 9 rolls out to SpaceX’s West Coast launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base ahead of Sunday’s targeted launch of 64 payloads for the Spaceflight SSO-A: SmallSat Express mission. Falcon 9’s first stage for this mission completed two East Coast launches & landings this year. pic.twitter.com/7sgsdDzIbQ
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) December 1, 2018
However, late night the same day, the company tweeted that it was temporarily calling off the scheduled launch to run additional inspections of the rocket’s second stage, saying that it was “working toward a backup launch opportunity” on Monday (Dec 3).
Standing down from tomorrow’s launch attempt of Spaceflight SSO-A: SmallSat Express to conduct additional inspections of the second stage. Working toward a backup launch opportunity on December 3.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) December 2, 2018
This was the third postponement of the launch in a matter of days.
Initially scheduled for Nov 19, the launch attempt was called off “to conduct additional pre-flight inspections.”
Standing down from Monday’s launch attempt of Spaceflight SSO-A: SmallSat Express to conduct additional pre-flight inspections. Once complete, we will confirm a new launch date.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) November 17, 2018
The launch was then rescheduled for Nov 28 but once gain Space X announced a “no-go due to extreme high-altitude winds that violate Range requirements.”
Wednesday's launch attempt of Spaceflight SSO-A from Vandenberg Air Force Base is currently no-go due to extreme high-altitude winds that violate Range requirements. Vehicle and payloads are healthy. We will announce a new launch date once confirmed with the Range.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) November 28, 2018
If all goes well with the backup launch on Sunday, the Falcon 9 rocket should blast off at 10:32 am, carrying a payload of not one, not two, but 64 satellites on what the company is calling a “rideshare mission” organized by Spaceflight, a Seattle-based launch broker for SmallSats.
Ranging from Rubik’s Cube-sized satellites to some that are as big as a refrigerator, the assorted spacecraft will be launched into a “Sun-Synchronous Low Earth Orbit” (LEO) on behalf of 34 U.S. and international organizations.
According to Spaceflight Industries, the mixed bag of satellites includes:
“15 microsats and 49 cubesats from both commercial and government entities, of which more than 25 are from international organizations from 17 countries, including United States, Australia, Italy, Netherlands, Finland, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, UK, Germany, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Thailand, Poland, Canada, Brazil, and India.”
The rideshare mission, named SSO-A: SmallSat Express, not only represents the Spaceflight’s “first purchase of an entire Falcon 9 to accommodate the growing number of customers seeking affordable rideshare options to launch their spacecraft into orbit, it’s also a historic launch,” says the Spaceflight SSO-A website.
Some notable names among the 64 include:
- University of North Carolina Wilmington
- Helios Wire / Sirion Global
- King Mongkut’s University of Technology North Bangkok (KMUTNB)
- Honeywell Aerospace
- HawkEye 360
- Nevada Museum of Art
- Fleet Space Technologies
- Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology
- Capella Space Corporation
- University of Colorado Boulder Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space
Although Space X has flown used boosters in the past, it has never launched a previously-flown booster more than once.
The Spaceflight SSO-A: SmallSat Express mission will be the Hawthorne-based company’s first attempt to fly a used-booster twice, which means it will be the booster’s third flight if you include its debut flight when it was brand new.
Speaking at the International Astronautical Congress in Bremen, Germany, in October, Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of build and flight reliability, said that the company was working on flying a booster multiple times in the future.
“So far, we’ve only flown a booster twice,” Koenigsmann said.
“Beginning soon, we will start flying a booster three times, and then take it to four times, five times, and so on and so forth,” he said.
“We have obviously to be very careful in evaluating boosters that come back after multiple flights. We want to make sure that we don’t see wear-and-tear in the wrong spots,” Koenigsmann added.
The Falcon 9 first-stage booster being used for the SSO-A mission debuted in May when it lifted off from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, carrying into orbit Bangladesh’s communication satellite, Bangabandhu 1.
The booster returned back to land on Space X’s drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean from where it was brought to Florida for inspection and repairs.
It was re-flown in August, blasting off from launch pad 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, also in Florida, this time carrying an Indonesian communications spacecraft called Merah Putih.
It returned without incident for another landing on the company’s drone ship in the Atlantic.
It was brought back to terra firma for a cross-country haul to California where it was again inspected and refurbished and is now on the verge of its third mission, which should happen on Sunday, provided there are no further postponements.
Space X is planning to use the booster a fourth time if it manages to successfully land it a third time on the drone ship; however, this time around the drone-ship is stationed in the Pacific Ocean, off the Vandenberg cost.
Retrieving and re-flying boosters are still in a nascent stage and Space X is learning with each recovery and re-launch, as was pointed out by Koenigsmann in October.
“One of the problems is fatigue. You’ve got to watch the life cycle on components,” Koenigsmann said.
“They vibrate, basically, and you’ve got to have an eye on fracture control and make sure that you don’t have any fractures on those components,” he said.
“That is actually not new. Helicopters do this right now. They are basically vibration machines, and they track, actually, the number of cycles, and they know exactly when they have to go into maintenance or preventive maintenance,” Koenigsmann continued.
“Something similar is what we can do here on the rocket,” he said.
“We can basically record the flight load, and then log this to the history of the part, and we can figure out when the part has to be exchanged, if it actually has to be exchanged.
Ideally, you do not want to change parts,” Koenigsmann concluded.
So far, Space X has successfully achieved booster recoveries a record 21 times, achieving the last retrieval in May 2017 when a first-stage Falcon 9 returned to touch down on Landing Zone-1 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
It was the ninth recovery on Landing Zone-1, while 12 retrievals were made on ‘autonomous spaceport drone ships’ in the ocean.