Update 6:50 PM EST : At the very top of the launch window, a brand new Falcon 9 rocket launched from Florida on Thursday night. The missile seemed to fly through its first stage flight without a hitch, dropping its GPS III payload into a parking orbit. The first stage then returned to Earth and landed safely on a drone ship. This was SpaceX’s 20th launch in 2020.
Pending a review of the engine data from this launch, it is likely that NASA and SpaceX will clear the Falcon 9 for flight and continue with the Crew-1 mission on Nov. 14.
Original Post 3:35 PM EST: SpaceX hasn’t launched a brand new rocket since June, when it boosted a GPS III satellite for the US Space Force on a Falcon 9 rocket. Since then, the company has launched several commercial missions and its own Starlink satellites on a variety of rockets previously flown, and all of them have been successful.
However, when the company attempted to launch a new Falcon 9 first stage — this was for yet another GPS satellite, dubbed GPS III-04 — on Oct. 2, the attempt was dropped at T-2 seconds. Later, SpaceX’s Hans Koenigsmann explained that two of the rocket’s nine first-stage motors ignited early in the start of the October launch attempt, triggering an automatic shutdown of the motors.
This problem was ultimately traced to a little bit of paint used during a metal treatment process that was supposed to be removed before flight, but wasn’t. Now the company believes it has addressed the issue, which is a good thing, as the company has three major missions ahead for the US government, all planned to fly on new missiles.
First up is a second attempt at launching the GPS III-04 satellite, coming Thursday evening. A Falcon 9 rocket, with two of its Merlin engines replaced, will lift off at 6:24 a.m. EST (23:24 UTC) from Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The nearly four-ton satellite will be deployed in a transfer orbit with an apogee of approximately 20,000 km.
Provided this mission is a success and resolves the paint problem, SpaceX will then proceed with its second manned launch, that of a Dragon spacecraft featuring NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, along with mission specialist Sôichi Noguchi of Japan. Aerospace Exploration Agency. , to the International Space Station. That mission is currently scheduled for November 14.
And finally, SpaceX has another mission planned for NASA for no earlier than Nov. 21, the launch of the Earth-observing Sentinel-6 spacecraft from Vandenberg Air Force Base.
Although SpaceX has investigated the paint problem, it has been able to pilot its flight-proven rockets, as those first stages had already been shown to be unaffected by the manufacturing problem. It’s also worth noting that both the Space Force and NASA have reached an agreement with SpaceX to fly their missions on used first stages for future missions.
Provided that tonight’s GPS III mission gets underway — the current weather forecast supports a 60 percent chance of favorable conditions — SpaceX will attempt to climb the first stage. Of course I still love you drone ship. The company’s launch webcast below should start about 15 minutes before the launch window opens.
List image by Trevor Mahlmann for Ars