SpaceX has launched the a pair of Falcon 9 missions approximately 23 hours apart from the company’s two Florida launch pads. The first mission carried the first two satellites for a new constellation known as O3b mPOWER to orbit on Friday, Dec. 16, with liftoff coming at the very end of an 87-minute launch window at 5:48 PM EST (22:48 UTC) from Space Launch Complex 40 (SCL-40) at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS).
This was followed by a different Falcon 9 sending 54 more Starlink internet satellites into low Earth orbit from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Saturday, Dec. 17 at 4:32 PM EST (21:32 UTC).
The record for the fastest time between launches from Cape Canaveral dates back to Nov. 11, 1966. On that date, an Atlas-Agena Target Vehicle lifted off from Launch Complex 14 at 2:07:59 PM EST. That was followed one hour and 39 minutes later by the launch of the Gemini 12 mission carrying astronauts Jim Lovell and Buzz Aldrin from Launch Complex 19 at 3:46:33 PM EST. The pair would later practice rendezvous and docking with the target vehicle.
While the Eastern Range, which includes both CCSFS and KSC, stated its readiness to support both launches just 33 minutes apart on Friday, SpaceX announced it was “prioritizing launch of the O3b mPOWER mission on Friday afternoon, and setting up for launch of Starlink on Saturday, Dec. 17.”
The shortest turnaround between SpaceX missions occurred earlier this year. The company launched the Crew-5 mission to the ISS at 12:00 PM EDT on Oct. 5. That was followed by the launch of Starlink Group 4-29 seven hours and 10 minutes later at 7:10 PM EDT.
Both the O3b mPOWER launch, as well as the Starlink 4-37 mission, are heavy payload flights for Falcon 9 given the respective mission’s destinations, requiring drone ship landings of the two first stage boosters.
The booster launching first from SLC-40 was B1067-8. This booster previously supported two CRS missions (CRS-22 and CRS-25), two Commercial Crew missions (Crew-3 and Crew-4), the Turksat-5B and Hotbird-13G communications satellites, and a Starlink mission. It landed on the drone ship A Shortfall of Gravitas, 672 km due east if the launch site, roughly eight and half minutes after liftoff.
The Falcon 9 first stage flying from LC-39A was B1058-15, which was the first time a Falcon 9 booster flew for the 15th time. It previously flew on the crewed Demo-2 mission, as well as launching ANASIS-II, CRS-21, two Transporter rideshare missions, and nine Starlink flights. Just Read the Instructions, located 652 km to the northeast of the launch site, was the landing target for this flight.
Both fairing recovery ships, Bob and Doug, were called on to support the double mission and recover the payload fairing halves which protect the payloads during ascent through Earth’s atmosphere. These will be returned to Port Canaveral and refurbished for use on future flights.
Bob supported O3b mPOWER while Doug supported Starlink 4-37.
O3b mPOWER 1 & 2
SES is a Luxembourg-based satellite telecommunications network with 67 currently operational satellites (before the O3b mPOWER launch) under its control in both geostationary orbit (GEO) and medium Earth orbit (MEO). Five of those are part of a group called O3b, also referred to as O3b MEO.
The network was originally owned by a company called O3b Networks, with the name being an initialism meaning “other three billion,” referring to the approximately three billion people on the planet who did not have steady access to the internet at the time of the first launch in 2013. The company was purchased by SES in 2016.
Those 20 original satellites will remain in their current orbit 8,063 km (5,010 mi) above the equator in MEO ahead of the new network, which SES says will expand their satellite internet and communications networks.
The 11 second-generation O3b mPOWER satellites are designed to provide high-throughput and low-latency data and internet to governments, telecommunications companies, and even commercial companies such as cruise liners.
The idea for the additional network began back in 2016 as a collaboration between SES and Boeing. These particular satellite buses, the Boeing 702X, have a mass of 1,900 kg. These upgraded 702 satellites, according to Boeing, are built using Boeing subsidiary Spectrolab’s custom-designed solar arrays, which need to be built to withstand additional radiation in MEO.
According to Boeing and SES, the new satellites use a “software-defined payload,” which will allow them to provide more than 5,000 steerable spot beams per satellite, providing as few as 50 megabits per second and up to multiple gigabits per second per customer. The company also claims roundtrip latency of fewer than 150 milliseconds.
The new satellite network already has customers waiting for this launch. According to SES, some customers include Microsoft, Orange, as well as ISAT Africa. Other partners include major cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean International, Virgin Voyages, and Italian cruise line MSC, which will include dedicated hardware designed to receive the fastest data from the new network on the Explora 1 ship which is currently under construction.
The O3b mPOWER network’s 11 satellites will be launched on five different SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets, including the two on this mission. The satellites are designed to be stacked and launched in batches of two or three. SES says the plan is to launch four more satellites on two different launches during the first quarter of 2023. That is expected to be followed by two more satellites launched later in 2023. A final three satellites are expected to launch in 2024, completing the network.
Our first two #O3bmPOWER satellites are preparing for launch! 🤩 Stay tuned for more details on how you can watch the livestream!
— SES (@SES_Satellites) December 14, 2022
The company expects it to take approximately six months after launch for each satellite to reach its designated orbit 8,000 km above Earth and to be commissioned. The service is expected to begin rolling out to customers at the start of Q3 in 2023.
Starlink Group 4-37
The second mission, known as Starlink Group 4-37, took 54 Starlink internet satellites to the fourth shell of the orbiting constellation. That means the final destination was a circular orbit of 560 km, inclined 53.2 degrees. This also marks the first Starlink launch in nearly two months.
The most recent Starlink launch was back on Oct. 28, when 53 satellites took off from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California as part of Group 4-31. The last time SpaceX launched more satellites to add to its internet constellation from Florida was Group 4-36 back on Oct. 20.
After this launch, there are 3,612 satellites launched as part of the Starlink network. Of those, 291 have already reentered and burned up. With other satellites having already failed or are currently in the process of being deorbited, that leaves 3,284 working satellites in orbit after Group 4-37 becomes operational.
Each spacecraft is a Starlink v1.5 satellite, which has a mass near 300 kg thanks to the addition of laser inter-satellite links, which allows multiple satellites to relay information to each other via laser until it reaches one close to a ground receiving station.
These two missions mark SpaceX’s 58th and 59th launches of 2022, which puts the company one launch away from the goal of 60 missions in a single year. Two more missions are currently scheduled for this year, including another Starlink mission and EROS-C3.
(Lead image: Falcon 9 launches the Starlink Group 4-37 mission. Credit: Julia Bergeron for NSF)