Update: In a surprise twist, SpaceX has confirmed plans to launch SAOCOM 1B, Starlink-11, and hop Starship SN6 in less than ten hours on August 30th.
Contingent upon a ULA Delta IV Heavy launch on August 29th, Starlink-11 is scheduled to lift off on a Falcon 9 rocket no earlier than (NET) 10:12 am EDT (UTC-4), followed by SAOCOM 1B on a separate Falcon 9 NET 7:18 pm EDT (UTC-4). Simultaneously, SpaceX is currently working towards a second full-scale Starship hop test between 8 am and 8 pm CDT (UTC-5) on Sunday, August 30th.
Pending an August 29th mission from competitor ULA, SpaceX aims to attempt two orbital Falcon 9 launches and a Starship hop test over the course of just a few days.
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket was originally scheduled to launch the secretive National Reconnaissance Office 44 (NROL-44) spy satellite on Wednesday before the customer requested a 24-hour delay and technical rocket bugs pushed the mission to no earlier than (NET) August 27th and now August 29th. Delta IV Heavy’s low cadence of one or two annual launches has traditionally made it hard for the rocket to launch on time, offering very few opportunities for the company to work the kinks out of the complex system.
ULA’s NROL-44 launch currently holds precedence over other missions scheduled around the same time, meaning that SpaceX has no choice but to delay its own launches every time the ULA mission slips. SpaceX has two launches currently in queue: Argentinian Earth observation satellite SAOCOM 1B was scheduled to launch NET 7:19 pm EDT (UTC-4) on August 28th, while SpaceX’s 11th Starlink v1.0 launch was expected to lift off NET 10:08 am EDIT (UTC-4) on August 30th. Simultaneously, a SpaceX Starship prototype is tracking towards its first short hop somewhere in between those orbital launches. ULA’s second NROL-44 delay has thrown both SpaceX launch dates somewhat up in the air, however.
Starship SN6 Flight 1
Recent delays to SpaceX’s East Coast launches have pushed the company’s second full-scale Starship hop test to the front of the line. Starship serial number 6 (SN6) is currently scheduled to attempt its first 150m (~500 ft) hop as early as Saturday, August 29th. Coming less than four weeks after Starship SN5 became the first full-scale prototype to successfully lift off (and land) on August 4th, a second successful hop – with an entirely different Raptor engine and Starship prototype – would be an extraordinary feat.
Meanwhile, SpaceX is simultaneously inspecting and repairing the hop-proven Starship SN5 prototype – most likely with the intention of flying the ship again in the near future. According to CEO Elon Musk, SpaceX’s current goal is to perform “several” fast-paced Starship hop tests to streamline the new rocket’s launch operations. The August 29th window for SN6’s 150m hop lasts from 8am to 8pm and the rocket could attempt to lift off as early as 10am to noon.
Sister to the SAOCOM 1A satellite SpaceX launched from California in October 2018, SAOCOM 1B is more or less identical. Notably, however, it will launch from Florida – the first polar launch planned from the US East Coast in half a century. The reason the United States effectively retired the Eastern polar launch corridor is a bizarre story of Cold War tensions gone awry but the gist is that SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket will ‘dogleg’ midflight, changing its trajectory to avoid overflying populated regions.
Originally scheduled to launch as early as March 30th, the Argentinian satellite has been relentlessly delayed by coronavirus-related restrictions and technical delays. SAOCOM 1B’s Falcon 9 booster was even swapped amidst the delays, switching from B1051 to B1059 as SpaceX strove to fill the gap in its manifest with internal Starlink missions. Now, NROL-44’s technical launch delays have pushed the Falcon 9 mission from August 27th to NET 7:19 pm EDT (UTC-4) on Sunday, August 30th.
SAOCOM 1B will be SpaceX’s first return-to-launch-site (RTLS) booster landing since March 2020.
Finally, prior to NROL-44’s 72-hour slip, SpaceX’s 11th Starlink v1.0 mission and 12th Starlink launch overall was scheduled NET Sunday, August 30th. ULA’s delays have added considerable uncertainty, at one point pushing Starlink-11 to a tentative September 1st NET before the launch date (rather oddly) slipped back into late-August. Assuming SpaceX still has to wait for ULA, the most likely alternative is August 31st, given that August 30th would necessitate two launches in less than ten hours.
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