SpaceX is in the final stages of preparing a trio of Falcon 9 rockets for a set of launches scheduled less than two days apart.
The potential hat trick will likely be the last opportunity for a salvo of Falcon launches before the end of 2022. As a disclaimer, while unofficial launch dates (derived from regulatory documents or well-sourced public manifests) were consistently close to actual launch dates for most of 2022, that ceased to be the case when SpaceX began experiencing an abrupt uptick in launch delays over the last two months. As a result, Falcon launch dates – even once confirmed by SpaceX – should be assumed to be a bit more uncertain than usual until it’s clear that that trend has died down.
Nonetheless, all available signs indicate that SpaceX and its customers are moving forward with plans for three back-to-back launches before the end of the week.
Set to kick off the diverse trio is the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) spacecraft, a roughly $1.2 billion joint mission between NASA and French space agency CNES. Thanks in part to the COVID pandemic, which has and continues to impact large swaths of NASA and the aerospace industry, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory completed its portion of SWOT around 9% over budget and eight months behind schedule [PDF] since mission formulation began in 2012. Over a similar time scale, several other NASA missions have experienced cost increases of 10-100%, generally reflecting well on SWOT’s management.
SWOT, a roughly two-ton (~4400 lb) satellite, is designed to conduct the first global survey of all surface water on Earth using two large synthetic aperture radar (SAR) antennas and a conventional radar altimeter. At a cost of roughly $112 million, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to launch SWOT to low Earth orbit (LEO) no earlier than (NET) 3:46 am PST (11:46 UTC) on Thursday, December 15th. SpaceX successfully tested SWOT’s Falcon 9 well in advance on December 10th. The rocket was then returned to the company’s hangar at Vandenberg Space Force Base (VSFB) Space Launch Complex 4E for payload installation before rolling back to the pad on December 13th.
The light satellite and low target orbit will allow Falcon 9’s booster to return to the launch site and land at SpaceX’s LZ-4 landing zone, precluding the need for a drone ship recovery.
Up next, another Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to launch the first two of eleven Boeing-built O3b mPOWER communication satellites for operator SES as early as 4:21 pm EST (21:21 UTC), Friday, December 16th. After lifting off from SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) LC-40 pad, Falcon 9 is set to launch the roughly 3.4-ton (~7500 lb) pair of satellites to a medium Earth orbit (MEO) with an altitude of 7825 kilometers (4862 mi).
It’s unclear what orbit Falcon 9 will launch the satellites to, but the rocket’s booster will land on drone ship A Shortfall of Gravitas (ASOG) some 700 kilometers (~435 mi) downrange, indicating that it will need as much performance as the rocket can give. ASOG departed Port Canaveral on December 11th, confirming that launch preparations are well underway.
Finally, a third Falcon 9 rocket could launch SpaceX’s first Starlink mission since October 28th as early as 4:54 or 5:13 pm EST (21:54 or 22:13) on December 16th, potentially just 33 or 52 minutes after O3b mPOWER 1&2. If the two missions do launch on December 16th, which a reliable source of unofficial information has indicated is not guaranteed, it will smash the US record for back-to-back launches of the same rocket family. Russia’s R-7 rocket family will retain the international crown, however, having launched twice in 25 minutes in 1969.
Starlink 4-37 will lift off from SpaceX’s NASA Kennedy Space Center LC-39A pad, and its Falcon 9 booster will attempt to launch on drone ship Just Read The Instructions (JRTI). JRTI departed Port Canaveral on December 12th.
Following Starlink 4-37, SpaceX has at least two more launches tentatively scheduled before the end of 2022. NextSpaceflight.com reports that SpaceX could launch its sixth Transporter rideshare mission from Florida on December 27th, and two Israeli EROS-C3 Earth observation satellites out of California on December 29th. However, it’s worth noting that in the almost 17-year history of SpaceX Falcon operations, the company has never launched a rocket after December 23rd or before January 6th. Transporter-6 and EROS-C3 – SpaceX’s 60th and 61st launches of the year – would have to break through that apparent firewall to launch when they are currently scheduled.