SpaceX schedules next Starlink launch, fires up rocket for asteroid redirect mission

Update: SpaceX has successfully static fired the Falcon 9 tasked with launching DART. The rocket will now roll back to SLC-4’s integration hangar for payload installation before rolling out to the pad a second time.

SpaceX has scheduled its next East Coast Starlink launch just a few weeks after the latest as a different Falcon 9 rocket prepares to launch NASA’s DART asteroid redirection demonstration mission.

On Tuesday, NASA confirmed that a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is on track to launch the Double Asteroid Redirect Test (DART) spacecraft no earlier than (NET) 10:21 pm PST on Tuesday, November 23rd (06:21 UTC 24 Nov). Following the successful launch of NASA and the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Sentinel 6A spacecraft in November 2020 and the first launch of a full batch of laser-linked Starlink satellites on September 14th, DART will be SpaceX’s third West Coast launch in just over 12 months and the first time the company has launched out of Vandenberg twice in one year since 2019.

Up next, Spaceflight Now and launch photographer Ben Cooper recently confirmed that SpaceX has already scheduled its next Starlink launch after a successful mission on November 13th, aiming to deliver another batch of ~53 laser-linked satellites to orbit NET 1:36am EST (06:36 UTC), Wednesday, December 1st.

Oddly, Spaceflight Now’s launch calendar indicates that SpaceX’s next Starlink launch won’t help recent confusion over the constellations mission naming scheme. SpaceX’s most recent Starlink launch was deemed “Starlink 4-1,” which is explained below.

“In simple terms, the first ~4400-satellite phase of SpaceX’s Starlink constellation is split into five groups of satellites – known as shells – with different orbital altitudes and inclinations (the orbit’s tilt). In May, SpaceX’s most recent East Coast Starlink launch effectively completed the first of those five shells or groups. With Starlink V1.5’s September debut, SpaceX also debuted a new naming scheme, deeming the mission Starlink 2-1 – the first launch of the second shell. Based on the inclination implied in Starlink 4-1’s hazard warning, Shell 4 refers to a second group of 1584 satellites almost identical to Shell 1, while Shell 2 is a semi-polar group of 720 satellites. That means that Shells 3 and 5 are sets of either 340 or 158 satellites at slightly different altitudes in polar orbit and will likely be the last Phase 1 Starlink satellites SpaceX launches.” — November 7th, 2021

SpaceX’s next Starlink launch, however, is apparently named “Starlink 4-3,” implying that the company has either skipped a launch or was forced to swap the order of two missions for unknown reasons (perhaps the same reason that Starlink 2-3 – itself leapfrogging 2-2 – was indefinitely delayed from an original October launch target. In short, aside from being few and far between for unspecified reasons, the sequencing of SpaceX Starlink launches have been a mess in the second half of 2021 and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change anytime soon.

Barring the delay of one or several other missions, CEO Elon Musk’s recent statement that SpaceX is “aiming [to launch] 80 tons” or ~175,000 pounds of payload in Q4 2021 leaves room for two more Starlink launches (including 4-3) in the last six weeks of the year.

Falcon 9’s Sentinel 6A launch and landing, November 2020. (SpaceX)

In the meantime, as early as November 23rd, SpaceX is scheduled to launch DART to an unspecified orbit – perhaps a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) but maybe directly into deep space, the latter of which would make it Falcon 9’s first launch beyond the Earth-Moon system. Despite the extremely light payload, Falcon 9 booster B1063 is expected to land at sea on drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY), which falls in favor of a high-velocity Earth escape launch.

A SpaceX, JHUAPL (Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab), and NASA team successfully mated the ~550-670 kg (1200-1500 lb) spacecraft to Falcon 9’s payload adapter on November 10th and are likely just a few days away from encapsulating DART inside the rocket’s comparatively massive payload fairing. Sans payload, Falcon 9 will likely roll out to SpaceX’s SLC-4E pad and perform a prelaunch static fire test any day now before heading back to the hangar for fairing installation.

Update: A forum member spotted Falcon 9 vertical while traveling by train past SpaceX’s Vandenberg launch pad, confirming that a static fire is imminent.

SpaceX schedules next Starlink launch, fires up rocket for asteroid redirect mission
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