Falcon Heavy and Starlink headline SpaceX’s upcoming manifest

by Michael Baylor

With the all-important Demo-1 launch complete, SpaceX has quickly begun converting Pad 39A to ready it for Falcon Heavy flights. The launch provider is expected to fly not one but two Falcon Heavy missions within the coming months as part of an exciting manifest that also includes the first dedicated Starlink mission.

Almost immediately following the Demo-1 launch, SpaceX technicians were back to work at Pad 39A to reconfigure the hold down clamps from the Falcon 9 to the Falcon Heavy configuration.

The reaction frame – which supports the base of the rocket during the countdown – requires four hold down clamps for Falcon 9 and eight hold down clamps for Falcon Heavy.

The two Falcon 9 hold down clamps circled in red are removed for Falcon Heavy. Six more are then added. Credit: NSF Forum

With Falcon Heavy’s Arabsat 6A mission the next from the pad, SpaceX is working quickly to perform the conversion. In the future, SpaceX hopes to be able to convert from the Falcon 9 to the Falcon Heavy setup in only a week, but it is understood that it may take a bit of practice to reach that speed.

That being said, the launch provider remains confident that it will be ready to support the Arabsat 6A mission by early April. However, there is a chance that the payload will not be ready in time – potentially delaying the mission further.

Unfortunately, delays with the Arabsat 6A mission will likely spill over to STP-2 – the second Falcon Heavy launch from Pad 39A in 2019. That mission is currently scheduled for June and will reuse the side boosters from the Arabsat 6A mission. Therefore, SpaceX will need time to refurbish the two boosters in between the flights.

However, it is important to note that despite reports that all three cores from Arabsat 6A would be reused for STP-2, NASASpaceflight.com understands that the mission will in fact use a brand new center core.

Falcon Heavy Center Core B1055 on the test stand in McGregor Credit: Gary Blair for NSF L2

Arabsat 6A will feature all new cores with side boosters B1052 and B1053 and center core B1055. STP-2 will then feature the second flights of B1052 and B1053 along with B1057 – a brand new center core.

The existence of a second center core makes sense, as B1055’s landing during Arabsat 6A will likely be one of SpaceX’s most challenging to date. Due to Falcon Heavy’s flight profile, the booster will reach a higher than usual velocity. Consequently, the booster will make a hot reentry and land on OCISLY nearly 1,000 kilometers downrange – making it by far the farthest recovery attempt in SpaceX’s history.

Therefore, by having a second center core for STP-2, SpaceX will eliminate the risk of a significant delay if B1055 were to be lost or require substantial refurbishment.

If the Arabsat 6A payload is ready for launch in the near future, it will likely be the next mission that SpaceX executes. The next Falcon 9 launch will not occur until April 25th at the earliest.

That is the current no earlier than date for CRS-17 – a Dragon resupply mission to the International Space Station. If CRS-17 were to launch on the 25th of April, the launch would occur just before sunrise at around 6:20 am Eastern.

CRS-17 is expected to feature a brand new Falcon 9 first stage – likely B1056 – and will include a first stage landing on Landing Zone 1.

Additionally, SpaceX recently filed for the FCC licenses needed to support a Falcon 9 launch from SLC-40 and a recovery on OCISLY. The droneship will be positioned about 600 kilometers downrange to the northeast. Interestingly, there is not a SpaceX customer on the near-term manifest with a payload that would require such a trajectory.

NASASpaceflight.com now understands that this is the first dedicated flight for SpaceX’s proposed low earth orbit internet constellation called Starlink.

Two Starlink demonstration satellites named Tintin A and Tintin B were launched from Vandenberg in February of last year as rideshares with the Paz mission.

However, this time around the launch is expected to be dedicated to Starlink. Given that the position of the droneship will be over 600 kilometers downrange, it is expected that the flight will require a substantial amount of performance from the Falcon 9. As a result, SpaceX will likely be flying several Starlink spacecraft as opposed to just two.

The Tintin A & B demonstration satellites via SpaceX

As of now, the Starlink mission is tentatively scheduled to occur no earlier than mid-May.

Around that same time, SpaceX is expected to launch the long-delayed Radarsat Constellation Mission. As of last year, the mission was scheduled to launch as early as February, 2019. However, last December the Falcon 9 first stage B1050 failed to land on Landing Zone 1 after launching CRS-16. This was problematic, as the second flight of that booster was slated to be the Radarsat mission.

Consequently, the mission was delayed until another first stage became available. It is now understood that B1051 has been assigned to fly Radarsat, although this is subject to change. B1051 is the same core which flew the Demo-1 mission last weekend.

Heading into June, SpaceX is expected to fly the AMOS-17 and STP-2 missions.

AMOS-17 is the replacement satellite for AMOS-6 which was lost in an anomaly during a static fire in 2016. The mission is currently planned to feature a flight-proven Falcon 9.

Crew Dragon’s in-flight abort test is also manifested for June according to NASA’s public Commercial Crew schedule. However, the test of Crew Dragon’s abort systems is expected to slip deeper into the summer.

On a similar note, the Demo-2 test flight – which will be the first crewed flight of Crew Dragon – is heading for late summer at the very earliest. This is an expected slip from the currently official schedule of July 2019.

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