SpaceX debuts converted Falcon Heavy booster on spectacular Italian satellite launch

For the first time, SpaceX has converted a flight-proven Falcon Heavy side core into a Falcon 9 booster and successfully launched the reborn rocket, carrying an Italian Earth observation satellite to orbit with one of the most visually spectacular Falcon launches in recent memory.

After a tortured campaign of four scrubbed or aborted launch attempts between January 27th and 30th, Falcon 9 finally lifted off from SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) LC-40 pad at 6:11 pm EST (23:11 UTC) on Monday, January 31st. The converted Falcon Heavy booster performed perfectly on its first solo mission, successfully carrying a Falcon upper stage and Italy’s CSG-2 synthetic aperture radar (SAR) Earth observation satellite to an altitude of 70 km (~45 mi) and a velocity of ~1.7 km/s (Mach 5) – effectively the edge of space.

Liftoff. (Richard Angle)
Falcon 9 produces an iconic artificial nebula as its two stages ignite and head in opposite directions. (Richard Angle)

Thanks to near-perfect weather and the timing of the launch about 15 minutes after sunset, Falcon Heavy side core B1052’s first mission as a Falcon 9 booster wound up producing some of the best views of a SpaceX launch in the company’s history. As the rocket ascended, the sky continued to darken for local ground observers. It wasn’t long before Falcon 9’s shiny, white airframe ascended into direct sunlight, which created some extraordinary contrast against the darkening sky for tracking cameras near the launch site.

MECO, stage separation, second stage startup, and first stage boostback. (SpaceX)

Thanks to the near-perfect conditions and the skill of one particular camera operator, webcast viewers were left with some of the best remote views of booster main engine cutoff (MECO), stage separation, and second stage startup ever recorded – let alone broadcast live. Additionally, the timing of the launch worked out such that the dusk Florida sky was still lit up when booster B1052 touched down at SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral Landing Zone (LZ-1) for the third time.

Falcon booster B1052 stuck its third successful land-landing. (SpaceX)

Almost exactly an hour after liftoff, Falcon 9’s upper stage successfully deployed CSG-2 into a polar sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) around 600 km (375 mi) above Earth’s surface, capping off SpaceX’s fourth launch this year. Known as Starlink 4-7, SpaceX’s next launch could occur as early as 1:56 pm EST (18:56 UTC) on Tuesday, February 1st – potentially less than 20 hours after CSG-2. Just ~25 hours after that Another Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to attempt to launch the United States’ NROL-87 spy satellite(s) from SpaceX’s West Coast launch site around 12:18 pm PST (20:18 UTC), Wednesday, February 2nd. A third Falcon 9 mission – Starlink 4-7 – is also expected to launch sometime later this week.

SpaceX debuts converted Falcon Heavy booster on spectacular Italian satellite launch
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