SpaceX has added another Starlink launch to its October manifest and plans to support the mission with a record-breaking Falcon 9 booster turnaround.
Several media outlets recently confirmed that SpaceX will attempt to launch Starlink-13 – the 13th launch of operational v1.0 satellites and 14th launch overall – no earlier than (NET) 8:25 am EDT (12:25 UTC) on October 18th. Two days later, NASASpaceflight.com reports that SpaceX intends to launch Starlink-14 as few as three days later, aiming to lift off NET 12:36 pm EDT (16:36 UTC) on Wednesday, October 21st.
Simultaneously, a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket’s eighth attempt to launch the National Reconnaissance Office’s NROL-44 spy satellite is scheduled NET 10 pm EDT (02:00 UTC), October 23rd. As a result, barring a (lately) rare instance of two back-to-back on-time launches, SpaceX and ULA appear to be destined to butt heads again on Florida’s Cape Canaveral launch range.
Originally scheduled to launch as early as June 2020, Delta IV Heavy’s NROL-44 launch slipped to August, ultimately landing on August 26nd. Thus began a bizarre series of delays. Pad pressurization systems were to blame for the first delay on August 27th, followed by a rare post-ignition launch abort on August 29th. For Delta IV Heavy, such an abort necessitates at least several weeks of rework and the next NROL-44 launch attempt came on September 26th, only to be aborted by issues with the pad’s umbilical “swing arm”. Weather scrubbed another attempt on September 28th, while the subsequent September 29th backup was aborted by a leak in a pad hydraulic system. Last but certainly not least, Delta IV Heavy suffered yet another last-second abort at T-7 seconds on September 30th.
All the while, ULA’s NROL-44 mission took range priority, meaning that the US Air Force wing responsible for enforcing range safety and providing weather forecasts would delay all other missions until the ULA launch was either completed or substantially delayed. Combined with temperamental weather, ULA’s range priority contributed to several SpaceX Starlink and GPS III SV04 launch delays in September and early October. Now, unless SpaceX manages to launch Starlink-13 and Starlink-14 right on schedule on October 18th and 21st, anything more than a day or two of delays will likely snowball into further delays as Delta IV Heavy takes the stage.
Regardless of the schedule uncertainty and potential for delays, if SpaceX manages to successful launch Starlink-13 and Starlink-14 within the next two or so weeks, October will mark the first time the company has launched three Starlink missions in one month. If the missions weren’t for Starlink, SpaceX would effectively be creating the second largest commercial satellite constellation in the world in less than 30 days.
Additionally, NextSpaceflight.com reports that SpaceX has assigned Falcon 9 booster B1060 to Starlink-14. If Starlink-14 lifts off on schedule on October 21st, B1060 will beat out B1058 for the crown of fastest booster turnaround, launching twice in just 48 days. Falcon 9 B1058 set the current world record when it beat NASA’s Space Shuttle (54 days) with a 51-day turnaround earlier this year.
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