SpaceX firms up Falcon 9’s busy January launch plans

SpaceX is on track to launch the second of three Starlink missions planned this month. (Richard Angle)

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket has rolled out to Kennedy Space Center Pad 39A ahead of the company’s third Falcon 9 launch this month as plans for another two missions – for a total of five – have crystallized.

A Spaceflight Now webcam captured the unknown flight-proven Falcon 9 booster leaving Pad 39A’s main integration hangar with a new upper stage and payload fairing filled with 49 satellites on January 16th. Weighing around 14.5 tons (~32,000 lb), those 49 spacecraft make up SpaceX’s Starlink 4-6 mission, which will continue the deployment of “Group 4” – the second of two shells of 1584 satellites that make up two-thirds of the initial 4408-satellite constellation. SpaceX remains on track to launch Starlink 4-6 no earlier than (NET) 7:26 pm EST or 9:24 pm EST on Monday, January 17th (00:26/02:24 UTC 18 Jan).

Drone ship A Shortfall Of Gravitas (ASOG) departed Port Canaveral for the booster recovery portion of Starlink 4-6 in the middle of Falcon 9’s January 13th Transporter-3 launch and landing. Due to damage drone ship Just Read The Instructions’ (JRTI) “Octagrabber” booster recovery robot suffered late last year, SpaceX appears to be prioritizing ASOG’s use for the moment, making the company’s plans for five launches this month even harder to achieve.

In fact, there’s a good chance that if SpaceX does manage five launches this month, it will have only been possible because two of those launches allowed Falcon 9 to perform a return-to-launch-site (RTLS) landing, foregoing the need for the simultaneous operation of both East Coast drone ships. The first, Transporter-3, was completed without issue on January 13th. After Starlink 4-6, SpaceX is scheduled to launch the Italian Space Agency’s CSG-2 Earth observation satellite NET ~6pm EST (23:00 UTC), January 27th. The spacecraft is light enough and headed to a low enough orbit to enable another RTLS Falcon 9 booster landing.

Thanks to the rare presence of two RTLS launches in one month, SpaceX should be able to turn drone ship ASOG around after Starlink 4-6 and attempt to launch another batch of Starlink satellites – Starlink 4-7 – NET January 29th. Barring delays, that means that SpaceX has a good chance of completing five launches in January 2022. SpaceX launched five Falcon rockets in one month for the first time ever in December 2021, so repeating that feat the very next month would be an impressive achievement and good reason to believe that SpaceX might actually be able to launch 40, 50, or even 60 times in 2022.

SpaceX firms up Falcon 9’s busy January launch plans
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