SpaceX has conducted their 13th successful launch of 2017 after sending Boeing’s X-37B spaceplane into orbit. While the secretive nature of the Orbital Test Vehicle missions mean that live coverage ended after the first stage landed, this resulted in amazing live coverage of the landing, as is now routine.
Following second stage separation and main engine cutoff, Falcon 9 1040 landed smoothly at the center of SpaceX’s land-based landing pad just over 5 miles away from where it lifted off. The company’s focus will likely immediately switch to preparing the company’s many Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center facilities for Hurricane Irma, expected to make landfall on the East coast of Florida sometime late Saturday or early Sunday. Even though KSC officials confirmed that some of SpaceX’s facilities – particularly the integration facility that holds Falcon Heavy cores – were designed to cope with winds as high as 150 mph, Irma has consistently generated winds of 180+ mph over the last 48 hours. We will keep a close eye on the progression of the storm and wish both the residents of Florida and the many tenants of the Space Coast the best of luck as they hope to weather yet another large hurricane.
Earlier this morning, SpaceX and the 45th Wings responsible for servicing launches at CCAFS had decided that Thursday would be the only launch attempt for OTV-5, foregoing a possible window on Friday in order to allow time to prepare for Irma and safe the payload, launch vehicle, and facilities involved with the launch attempt. The successful launch this morning thankfully means that SpaceX and CCAFS can now focus on safely readying their facilities for a potentially catastrophic storm, and most importantly on evacuating themselves and their families. While one can only hope that the storm might only gently graze or completely miss the East coast, current forecasts have deemed this unlikely as the time between now and landfall shrinks and predictions become more accurate.
X-37B, an approximately 5,000 kg reusable spaceplane, could remain in orbit for as long as two years, and possibly even longer. Its fate aboard the Falcon 9 second stage will likely remain unknown until amateur observers begin to catalog and track the vehicle as it orbits the Earth. This particular vehicle has spent at least 2,000 days in orbit.
Up next on SpaceX’s docket is the third launch of Iridium’s NEXT series of polar orbit satellites, currently aiming for a launch from the Vandenberg Air Force Base at 6:06 a.m. PST, October 4. The four or more weeks between launches at LC-39A will hopefully provide SpaceX enough time to deal with whatever complications Hurricane Irma brings, and will also provide plenty of breathing room for the team of engineers working to reactivate launch pad LC-40.