SpaceX has a California launch date for the first time in 16 months

Falcon 9 booster B1063 was spotted on its way west from McGregor, Texas to Vandenberg Air Force Base, California in August. (D. Stamos)

Just over a week after a Falcon 9 booster was spotted heading west, NASA has confirmed the date for SpaceX’s first California launch in more than 16 months.

Spotted in Texas on August 20th, Arizona on August 23rd, and at the entrance to Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) on August 24th, the SpaceX rocket is almost certainly Falcon 9 booster B1063 or B1064. Regardless, it – alongside an expendable upper stage and (likely also expendable) payload fairing – will be flying for the first time on a fairly unique mission cosponsored by NASA.

Known as Sentinel-6A or Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich, after the late scientist and NASA director responsible for bringing several major Earth science missions to fruition, the 1500 kg (3300 lb) Airbus-built satellite is designed to measure ocean height and analyze the Earth’s atmosphere almost anywhere on Earth.

Built by Airbus, the Sentinel 6A spacecraft has been officially completed and will be ready to head to California in September or October. (Airbus)

As previously discussed on Teslarati, the SpaceX booster spotted heading west late last month was almost certainly meant for Sentinel-6A.

NASA awarded SpaceX the $97 million launch contract in 2017, all but guaranteeing that Sentinel 6A will fly on a brand new Falcon 9 booster. The fact that the booster spotted in transport over the last week was never seen East of Texas strongly implies that it’s a new Falcon 9 SpaceX tested in McGregor before shipping back to California, in which case Sentinel 6A is almost certainly SpaceX’s next VAFB launch.

In the likely event that the booster that arrived at VAFB on August 24th is unflown, it’s probably Falcon 9 B1063. Germany’s SARah-1 radar imaging satellite is possibly the only other West Coast launch on SpaceX’s manifest that could warrant sending a new booster to California, but recent signs point towards that ~2200 kg (4850 lb) spacecraft launching in Q1 2021 (a delay from Q4 2020) as part of a dedicated SpaceX rideshare mission.

Less likely, SARah-1 could have been manifested on SpaceX’s first dedicated rideshare mission, scheduled to launch in December 2020. Either way, as fairly complex and expensive one-off science spacecraft, both SARah-1 and Sentinel 6A are liable to slip right from their current launch targets, meaning that Falcon 9 B1063 will likely spend at least 2-3 months in storage between now and the start of its first launch flow.


Teslarati.com — August 25th, 2020

Now, just three days after SpaceX successfully completed the first East Coast polar launch in half a century, NASA has already unexpectedly revealed that SpaceX’s first dedicated rideshare mission – mentioned above and now deemed Transporter-1 – is still on track to launch in December 2020. However, SpaceX has moved the launch from California to Florida, killing the possibility that the new booster now at SpaceX’s Vandenberg launch facilities was meant for SARah-1.

B1063 (presumed) bakes in the 110°F+ desert heat in Scottsdale, Arizona. (D. Stamos – Twitter)

The very next day, NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) office revealed that Sentinel-6A is officially targeting an 11:45am PDT (UTC-7), November 10th, 2020 launch on Falcon 9. Aside from giving SpaceX its first firm Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) launch date since June 2019, the NASA update also revealed that the mission hasn’t slipped a single day after more than two months of reviews.

B1063 (presumed) likely completed its McGregor, Texas acceptance testing sometime in late-July before shipping back to California a few weeks later.

Due to the fact both of SpaceX’s operational drone ships are currently stationed in Florida, Sentinel-6A will include a guaranteed Falcon 9 booster landing back at Landing Zone-4, situated just a thousand feet or so away from the SLC-4E launch pad.

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Eric Ralph: I write about space, among other things.
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