SpaceX says it’s finished encapsulating 40 spacecraft inside a Falcon 9 rocket’s payload fairing, paving the way for the company’s fourth Transporter rideshare mission early next month.
Scheduled to lift off no earlier than 12:24 pm EDT (16:24 UTC) on Friday, April 1st, Transporter-4 will be the first of as many as six Falcon 9 launches in April. In fact, SpaceX actually wants to launch all but one of those six missions in the first 19 days of the month – tying its existing cadence record if the company can pull it off.
SpaceX managed to complete a record five orbital Falcon 9 launches in ~18.5 days in December 2021. Including one additional mission in late November, SpaceX actually launched six times in 27 days. The company then nearly repeated that record the very next month, launching six times in 28 days in January and February 2022. SpaceX has yet to literally launch six times in the same month but it’s already more than demonstrated the ability to do so if the timing is right.
April might be that month. Following Transporter-4, SpaceX has two Crew Dragon missions – Axiom-1 with four private astronauts and Crew-4 with four government astronauts – scheduled to launch from Kennedy Space Center Pad 39A on April 6th and April 19th. In the middle, SpaceX intends to launch Starlink 4-14 – the month’s only planned Starlink mission – on April 14th. On April 15th, SpaceX is scheduled to launch the National Reconnaissance Office’s (NRO) NROL-85 spy satellite out of California’s Vandenberg Space Force Base. Finally, SpaceX could launch Egypt’s Nilesat 301 geostationary communications satellite on April 30th.
While it won’t break its internal cadence record, April should continue to demonstrate that five or six launches in one month are increasingly becoming the norm for SpaceX – not just some one-off feat requiring an extraordinary effort. That’s made even more clear by the fact that three of April’s launches will either be carrying humans or military spy satellites – both requiring the utmost care and explicit approval from two of SpaceX’s strictest customers.
Curiously, SpaceX has decided to recover Transporter-4’s Falcon 9 booster at sea despite a relatively small payload of just 40 satellites, likely meaning that the mission will require the rocket’s upper stage to perform at least three or four burns in orbit. One payload in particular – Germany’s EnMAP Earth observation satellite – both weighs far more than any other satellite aboard (~900 kg or ~2000 lb) and will likely take precedence, meaning that it will probably be delivered to a very specific orbit at the end of the mission’s deployment sequence.
Extra burns and longer coasts in orbit require significantly more propellant, which quickly cuts into the unforgiving margins needed for return-to-launch-site (RTLS) Falcon booster landings. In April, only NROL-85 will permit an RTLS landing, meaning that all five other launches will need to share SpaceX’s two East Coast drone ships – not impossible but far from easy. SpaceX’s record drone ship turnaround time is 13 days, while Starlink 4-14 will require a 13-day turnaround and Crew-4 a 14-day turnaround almost simultaneously.