SpaceX lines up five launches to close out 2018

by Michael Baylor

SpaceX’s launch manifest for the remainder of 2018 is beginning to take shape. The company has five launches remaining on its schedule for the year. Executing all of them would take SpaceX’s 2018 launch total to 22 – surpassing the launch provider’s previous record of 18 launches in a single year.

The next mission on SpaceX’s manifest is Es’hail 2. Scheduled for no earlier than November 14th, a Falcon 9 will launch the communications spacecraft from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center for the Qatar Satellite Company.

The Mitsubishi built satellite has already arrived in Florida after shipment from Japan.

Es’hail 2 will be placed into a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) – before utilizing its onboard thrusters to reach its final destination.

The launch will be the first from Pad 39A since Bangabandhu-1 on May 11th of this year. Since then, the launch complex has been undergoing renovations to support NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.  

The Fixed Service Structure (FSS) on Pad 39A with the crew access arm and raised Emergency Egress System (ESS). Credit: Nate Barker for NSF/L2

Notable changes include the addition of a crew access arm and raising of the Emergency Egress System (EES).

Following the Es’hail 2 launch, Falcon 9’s first stage will perform a landing on OCISLY. The serial number of the first stage booster which will execute the mission has not been confirmed.

Just five days later, a Falcon 9 will launch Spaceflight Industries’ SSO-A mission from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The launch will feature over 70 small payloads.

Traditionally, small satellites have either launched on smaller launch vehicles or as rideshares with a larger payload.

However, the SSO-A mission will combine numerous smaller payloads into one dedicated launch.

Currently, the launch is targeting  a liftoff time of 18:30 UTC on November 19th.

Interestingly, SpaceX’s Vice President of Mission Assurance, Hans Koneigsmann, stated at the 2018 International Astronautical Congress that the SSO-A mission may feature a first stage booster being flown for the third time.

Previously, SpaceX has only flown the same core twice.

If SSO-A is the first to feature a milestone third flight of the same booster, then the launch would have to utilize either B1046 or B1048. Those are the only two Block 5 boosters in SpaceX’s fleet which have already flown twice.

B1048 would be the most likely candidate out of the pair, given that it has already been performing launches out of Vandenberg.

While is understood that the Falcon 9 is capable of returning to Landing Zone 4 during this mission, SpaceX will not be allowed to do so if the current launch date holds – potentially due to a conflict with the range.

Furthermore, the SSO-A launch may see the return of SpaceX’s fairing recovery attempts. The launch provider has not attempted to catch a fairing half with the recovery ship Mr. Steven since Iridium-7 in July.

Following the unsuccessful attempt during Iridium-7, SpaceX removed the net and arms on Mr. Steven which are used to catch the fairing halves. Recovery equipment did reappear on the vessel until just before the SAOCOM-1A mission in October, but Mr. Steven did not attempt a recovery during that launch.

Mr. Steven with its net used to catch fairing halves. Credit: Brady Kenniston for NSF/L2

Recently, Mr. Steven has returned to action. Over the past few weeks, the vessel has participated in at least two fairing drop tests. During the tests, a Blackhawk helicopter released a fairing half with Mr. Steven then attempting to catch it.

Following SSO-A, SpaceX will return to the east coast for their third and final launch of November. CRS-16 is scheduled to launch from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on the 27th at 21:19 UTC.

CRS-16 will see a Dragon spacecraft filled with cargo launch to the International Space Station.

While the booster which will launch the mission has not been confirmed, the current plan is to recover the first stage on Landing Zone 1.

Next, the penultimate launch of the year will be GPS III-1 from SLC-40. The mission will be SpaceX’s first of likely numerous GPS missions.

At present, the company has been given two launch contracts from the Air Force for GPS missions. However, with numerous GPS satellites expected to need launches over the next decade, several more contracts are likely on the horizon.

The first GPS III satellite is shipped to Cape Canaveral. Credit: Lockheed Martin

During the GPS III-1 mission, a Falcon 9 will send the GPS spacecraft on its way to MEO (Medium Earth Orbit).

The brand new first stage booster – believed to be B1054 – will not be recovered during the mission. This indicates that the Falcon 9 will have to utilize significant performance during the launch, and thus will not be recoverable.

The GPS III-1 launch is currently scheduled for no earlier than December 15th at 14:08 UTC.

Finally, if schedules hold, SpaceX will conclude a record-breaking year with the Iridium-8 launch. Iridium-8 is the final planned Iridium NEXT launch, concluding an eight launch campaign that made Iridium Communications SpaceX’s largest commercial customer.

The Iridium-8 launch is currently scheduled to occur on December 30th at 16:38 UTC from SLC-4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The first stage booster – designated B1049 – will likely perform a landing on the droneship Just Read the Instructions (JRTI).

SpaceX is not able to land the first stage on Landing Zone 4, as the 10 Iridium NEXT satellites and their payload adapter weigh over 9,000 kilograms. As a result, the first stage will not have enough propellant to return to the launch site.

The Iridium-8 launch will be the second flight of B1049. The first stage previously launched Telstar 18 Vantage on September 10th.

Finally, the Iridium-8 mission will likely be another chance for SpaceX to attempt a fairing recovery. If successful, SpaceX would close out the year with a major accomplishment.

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