SpaceX launched 51 Starlink internet communication satellites into low Earth orbit on its Starlink Group 2-9 mission. Lifting off on May 10, 2023, at 13:09 PDT (20:09 UTC) from Space Launch Complex 4 East (SLC-4E) at the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, this mission marked 2023’s 68th orbital launch attempt and SpaceX’s 31st (30th orbital) launch of the year, making up just under 45% of all launch attempts thus far this year.
To help reach SpaceX’s ambitious goal of launching 100 times in 2023, this launch marked SLC-4E’s third-quickest turnaround time at 12.3 days. While this is substantially longer than Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40)’s fastest turnaround (just 5.15 days) and Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A)’s (at 8.96 days), it is clear that cadence is being increased from the west coast to support SpaceX’s busy launch cadence.
The reason why SLC-4E is slower to turn around launches than SpaceX’s other two operational pads is due to its use of SpaceX’s old transporter erector (T/E) design. At T-4 minutes, the T/E falls 13 degrees away from the rocket and does not move further from this position — remaining stationary during liftoff.
This is drastically different from the “throwback” T/E style used at SLC-40 and LC-39A, which moves just under two degrees away from the vehicle at roughly T-4 minutes, then falls the remaining distance from the vehicle (~45 degrees) at liftoff. This allows for the T/E to be further out of the vehicle’s exhaust, resulting in less refurbishment needed between flights.
Despite trying to increase Falcon 9’s cadence drastically from the west coast, as apparent by SpaceX’s acquisition of Space Launch Complex 6, the company has no public plans to replace the T/E at SLC-4E.
The Falcon 9 booster supporting Starlink Group 2-9 was B1075 — one of the newer boosters in the Falcon 9 fleet, having only supported Starlink Group 2-4 and the Space Development Agency’s Tranche 0 Flight 1 mission. Following the launch, the booster landed on the autonomous spaceport drone ship (ASDS) Of Course I Still Love You, which was tugged ~660 km downrange by Scorpius.
GO Beyond will provide both ASDS support and fairing recovery for this mission. It is thought that this ship is part of SpaceX’s west coast fleet consolidation, replacing both the current fairing recovery ship NRC Quest and ASDS support ship GO Quest.
The 51 Starlink v1.5 satellites atop the Falcon 9 were placed into an initial 222 by 334 km orbit inclined 70.00 degrees. The satellites will spend the following months further raising their orbits into the second Starlink generation one shell: a 570 km circular orbit at 70 degrees.
|Sats Launched||Total in Orbit||Total Working||Operational|
|Group 1||1.0||550 km 53°||1,665||1,494||1,460||1,426|
|Group 2||1.5||570 km 70°||305||302||301||101|
|Group 3||1.5||560 km 97.6°||243||233||233||187|
|Group 4||1.5||540 km 53.2°||1,637||1,570||1,568||1,513|
|Group 5||1.5||530 km 43°||386||384||383||200|
|Group 6||2.0 Mini||530 km 43°||42||40||40||0|
(Starlink information from Jonathan McDowell)
Falcon 9’s launch countdown sequence started at T-38 minutes where the launch director verified that all systems were go for propellant load. When given the go, both the first stage and second stage began being fueled with rocket propellant-1 at T-35 minutes. Also at this time, the first stage began being filled with liquid oxygen (LOX).
At T-20 minutes, fueling on the second stage completed, and the T/E began purging its lines, ensuring the lines were not contaminated and were thermally ready for LOX flow, which started at T-16 minutes. This purging is what causes the iconic Falcon 9 T-20 minute vent.
One minute before launch, the Falcon 9 entered start-up, which is when the vehicle takes command of the count. At T-3 seconds the booster’s flight computer commanded all nine Merlin 1D engines to ignite, which checked by the on-board flight computer. With the flight computer detecting no off-nominal systems, it commanded the hydraulic launch clamps to be released, allowing Falcon 9 to lift off.
B1075-3 burned for two minutes and 26 seconds before shutting down and separating from the second stage. Stage two burned until T+8:40; meanwhile, the booster completed its entry and landing burns. B1075 landed atop OCISLY, becoming B1075-4 and marking SpaceX’s 190th successful landing to date.
During this time, the two fairing halves deployed at T+2:41, which then utilized cold gas thrusters and parafoils to softly land in water for recovery.
The second stage then coasted for approximately 10 minutes, during which the stage started to rotate end-over-end. The four tension rods were then be deployed at T+17:21, allowing all 51 Starlink satellites to deploy at once.
This launch was SpaceX’s first Starlink launch of the week, with Starlink Group 5-9 scheduled to lift off later in the week. Later this month, SpaceX is scheduled to launch the Axiom Mission 2, Arabsat 7B, Iridium-9 and OneWeb flight 19, and several more Starlink missions.
(Lead image: B1075 launches latest Starlink mission. Credit: SpaceX)