SpaceX orbited a Globalstar communications satellite early Sunday from Cape Canaveral, completing the third Falcon 9 rocket flight in 36 hours, the fastest three-mission streak by a commercial launch company in history.
A spare spacecraft built more than a decade ago for Globalstar’s satellite phone and messaging network has been hidden inside the payload fairing of the Falcon 9 rocket for liftoff from the station of Cape Canaveral Space Force at 12:27:36 a.m. EDT (04:27:36 a.m. GMT).
The Falcon 9 took off from the Cape Canaveral launch pad with 1.7 million pounds of thrust from nine Merlin main engines. The engines pointed their nozzles to guide the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) rocket northeast of Florida’s space coast, aligning with an orbiting aircraft from Globalstar’s fleet of satellites.
The rocket exceeded the speed of sound in about a minute and shut down its booster stage about two and a half minutes into flight. Seconds later, the booster pulled away, heading for a SpaceX recovery platform, or drone, parked in the Atlantic Ocean east of Charleston, South Carolina.
Falcon 9’s first stage – itself 15 stories tall – landed on the drone about 10 minutes after liftoff, adding a ninth space trip to the booster’s logbook.
The upper stage of the Falcon 9 rocket fired its single Merlin engine three times, traversing different orbits before finally reaching an altitude of around 700 miles (1,126 kilometers) to deploy the Globalstar FM15 communications satellite nearly two hours after the start of the mission.
SpaceX said the upper stage had reached the mission’s target orbit, and officials celebrated the company’s third successful launch in less than two days.
The Falcon 9 mission trifecta began at 12:09 p.m. EDT (1609 GMT) on Friday with the launch of 53 Starlink internet satellites from Kennedy Space Center. This mission set a record with the 13th flight of a reusable Falcon booster, which returned to a landing on one of SpaceX’s drones in the Atlantic.
SpaceX teams from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California launched another Falcon 9 rocket on Saturday at 10:19 a.m. EDT (7:19 a.m. PDT; 2:19 p.m. GMT) with the German military’s SARah 1 radar reconnaissance satellite. The Falcon thruster used on the SARah 1 descended towards Vandenberg for a shore landing.
With Sunday’s mission for Globalstar, SpaceX completed three Falcon 9 flights in 36 hours and 18 minutes, the shortest duration between three missions ever by a commercial rocket company.
The launches marked the 158th, 159th and 160th flights of a Falcon 9 rocket overall, and the 24th, 25th and 26th Falcon 9 missions this year, trying the tally of 26 launches SpaceX has completed in the entire year 2020. SpaceX is on pace to surpass the 31 launch mark – its total from last year – by the end of July.
Company officials are targeting more than 50 Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches in 2022.
Aspects of Sunday’s launch have caused observers to raise questions about other spacecraft that may have deployed alongside the Globalstar satellite.
SpaceX did not mention any other payloads in its launch live webcast or on the Globalstar mission page on its website.
But the Globalstar satellite’s relatively light weight would usually leave enough propellant reserve on the Falcon 9’s thruster to return to landing. Instead, Sunday’s mission featured a landing on SpaceX’s offshore recovery platform.
Sunday’s launch live webcast provided by SpaceX did not show any onboard camera views of the Globalstar satellite until an hour into the mission, an unusual practice for SpaceX commercial launches. When live views from the onboard camera began streaming live, the Globalstar satellite was visible mounted on an upper-floor structure that appeared to be designed to accommodate other payloads.
If there were any additional satellites at Sunday’s launch, they were already deployed from the Falcon 9 rocket when live camera views began airing on SpaceX’s webcast.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster landed on the drone ship, completing the ninth trip to space for this reusable vehicle.
This is the third launch and landing for a Falcon 9 rocket in just 36 hours, the shortest time between three missions in SpaceX history.https://t.co/qDgQDTX6yT pic.twitter.com/lWZ1hVXfjE
— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) June 19, 2022
In another unusual move, Globalstar gave no details of the launch of its spare satellite ahead of Sunday’s mission. Globalstar released a statement in a quarterly financial report last month saying it plans to launch the rescue spacecraft in the “near future.” At the time, the company had not identified the launch vehicle for the replacement satellite.
Sunday’s launch was the first for a Globalstar satellite since 2013 and adds capacity to the company’s commercial network providing voice and data connectivity for satellite phones, asset tracking and Internet of Things applications.
Globalstar operates a fleet of dozens of communications satellites in low Earth orbit. The company did not respond to multiple requests for details about the upcoming launch.
The company launched 60 first-generation satellites, built by Space Systems/Loral, on Delta 2 and Soyuz rockets from 1998 to 2007. Globalstar added 24 second-generation satellites, made by Thales Alenia Space, on four Soyuz rocket missions from 2010 to 2013. .
Globalstar satellites provide data connectivity to customers between 70 degrees north and south latitude, and the company’s second-generation spacecraft are designed for a 15-year operational life. The Globalstar satellites built by Thales are trapezoidal in shape and feature 16 C-band and S-band transponders and 16 L-band and C-band receivers.
Globalstar competes in the satellite phone and data relay market with companies like Iridium, Inmarsat and Orbcomm. Globalstar announced in February that it was purchasing 17 new satellites from an industry team led by MDA and Rocket Lab to extend the life of its constellation.
The company expects all 17 new satellites to be launched by the end of 2025. A launch service provider for the new satellites has not been announced.
The $327 million contract for the 17 new satellites is primarily funded by an unidentified “potential customer” for Globalstar’s services.
Globalstar did not reveal the organization funding the new satellites, but the operator said last month it had signed a term sheet with a “large global customer” to begin rolling out S-band services in the region. so-called “Band 53” frequency range. in the United States and other countries.
The unnamed customer also paid the majority of the costs associated with launching the Globalstar FM15 satellite, Globalstar said in its financial filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Globalstar FM15 separation confirmed. A spare satellite for Globalstar’s commercial voice and data relay constellation has been deployed from SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket at an altitude of 700 miles (1,126 kilometers). https://t.co/qDgQDTX6yT pic.twitter.com/xMlve1ff1R
— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) June 19, 2022
SpaceX is planning two more Falcon 9 launches this month.
Another batch of Starlink internet satellites is scheduled to lift off from Kennedy Space Center next Saturday, June 25. And a Falcon 9 rocket is being readied for launch June 28 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral with the SES 22 broadcast satellite.
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