The Falcon 9 rocket made a rare “land” landing as part of the first launch of SpaceX in California in almost a year and a half and what the company’s manager described as “the beginning of many exciting things to come.”
Carrying about 1,200 kg (~ 2,600 lb) of oceanography and Earth observation satellite Sentinel 6A, a brand new Falcon 9 rocket (including booster B1063) took off on schedule from the Vandenberg (VAFB) SLC-4E launch site at 9:17 p.m. PST (17:17 UTC). In simple terms, it’s no less incredible that SpaceX was able to launch the Falcon 9 on the first attempt at the SLC-4E – and with a NASA customer, no less ̵
As usual, the Falcon 9 performed flawlessly, with the first stage B1063 effortlessly lifting the combined ~ 120-ton (~ 260,000 lb) second stage, the Sentinel 6A spacecraft and the payload fairing to approximately 75 km (~ 50 miles) before turn off, detach, and turn to return to the launch pad. The second stage of the Falcon 9 ignited and continued into orbit, burning for about six minutes. After completing a three-engine combustion and igniting its central Merlin 1D for a third landing combustion, the Falcon 9 B1063 touched SpaceX’s LZ-4 landing site less than a second after the rocket’s upper stage was shut down.
45 minutes after this initial “second stage cut” (SECO), the Merlin Vacuum switched on again, burning for ten seconds to circulate its polar orbit and obtain the Sentinel 6A as close as possible to the nominal operating altitude. The spacecraft, deployed by Falcon 9 a few minutes later, completes the mission and marks the completion of the 98th successful launch and the 100th mission of Falcon 9 overall, as well as the 22nd launch of SpaceX this year – a record for the company.
Sentinel 6A is now complete, SpaceX still has another mission – Starlink V1 L15 – scheduled to launch on November 22, potentially covering the first month of SpaceX from four launches so far. In addition, the company has at least five more launches with reasonable targets for launch in December, albeit back to the East Coast.
However, in 2021, SpaceX could have up to four or five potential West Coast launches, although the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic could push one or more of these missions into 2022. A step further, trade missions aside , SpaceX recently expressed interest in the FCC launching the polar Internet satellite Starlink launched as soon as possible, suggesting that special launches of Starlink from Vandenberg could begin next year if the company receives regulatory approval.
In the end, it seems that SpaceX’s operations on the West Coast are back in action and are here to stay (at least for now) after an unusual year and a half of hibernation. Stay tuned for updates for the next launch of the company in California.