SpaceX, ULA aim for back-to-back Starlink, spaceplane rocket launches

SpaceX and ULA are hoping to perform Falcon 9 and Atlas V launches within ~20 hours of each other later this week. (Richard Angle/Boeing)

SpaceX and ULA are just four days away from a ~20-hour period that could see them attempt back-to-back launches of their respective workhorse rockets, potentially sending both Starlink satellites and a US military space plane into orbit.

If successful, the two missions would mark the fastest turnaround for launches performed by the two competing companies from the same coast, a testament to improvements made by the US Air Force (now Space Force) outfits that operate the range. The ultimate goal of those upgrades is to enable up to 40 annual orbital-class launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) pads – a cadence not seen in the US since the 1960s.

As of now, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) is tracking towards 8-10:30 am EDT, May 16th for the sixth launch of Boeing’s small X-37B spaceplane, used by the military for orbital experiments and other more mysterious purposes. SpaceX’s eighth launch of 60 Starlink satellites could follow as few as 20 hours later at approximately 4 am EDT, May 17th, carrying the next batch of operational internet satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO).

60 Starlink satellites depart Falcon 9’s spinning upper stage on April 22nd. (SpaceX)

Aside from a potentially impressive back-to-back launch from the United States’ only two commercial orbital launch providers, SpaceX’s Starlink-7 mission is also expected to include several important milestones for reusable rocketry and the company’s rapidly-growing satellite constellation. Notably, SpaceX and CEO Elon Musk have recently stated that the mission will be the first launch of Starlink satellites with a prototype ‘visor’ designed to make each spacecraft nearly invisible from the ground.

A render of SpaceX’s so-called ‘VisorSat’. (SpaceX)

If SpaceX’s so-called VisorSat prototypes are successful, the company plans to outfit all future Starlink satellites with visors. Additionally, the Starlink-7 spacecraft will be the first to trial a new approach to satellite orientation en masse, a change also designed to mitigate the constellation’s impact on ground-based astronomy. By angling satellites in such a way that they give very little surface area for sunlight to reflect off of, SpaceX could potentially decrease or fully remove ground reflections from orbiting satellites, useful even if only temporary.

SpaceX’s Starlink satellites can produce truly spectacular and inspiring views when flying overhead, although that same visibility can disrupt some astronomy. (Richard Angle)

Additionally, SpaceX is set to launch – and attempt to land – Falcon 9 booster B1049 for the fifth time in support of Starlink-7, only the second time an orbital-class booster has flown five times. If B1049 is able to stick a landing aboard drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY), Starlink-7 will also mark the first time a SpaceX booster has completed five landings, also setting B1049 up to become the first booster to attempt its sixth launch in the near future.

B1048 was unfortunately lost to a mid-launch anomaly that also prevented the rocket from successfully landing. (Pauline Acalin, SpaceX, Tom Cross, Richard Angle)
B1049 completed its fourth launch, landing, and recovery in early-January 2020. (Richard Angle)

As always, delays are par for the course in the world of orbital launches, so it’s possible that one of the two launches scheduled on May 16th and 17th will slip. After Starlink-7, SpaceX’s next orbital launch – Crew Dragon’s Demo-2 NASA astronaut launch debut – is perhaps the most important mission in the company’s 18 year history and is scheduled to lift off no earlier than (NET) May 27th.

SpaceX, ULA aim for back-to-back Starlink, spaceplane rocket launches
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