A Falcon 9 rocket launched 13 test satellites for a planned massive US military constellation from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on Saturday. This was the 61st orbital launch of the year for SpaceX.
The Falcon 9 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 4E at 7:25 a.m. PST (10:25 a.m. EDT/1425 UTC). After the stage separated and the upper stage ignited, about two and a half minutes into the flight, the satellite delivery mission went into a news blackout, which is typical for national security missions.
This was the third launch attempt in as many days for the mission. An engine problem with the Falcon 9 4 canceled the launch on August 31, and on September 1, the countdown stopped 20 minutes before the end of the clock due to a faulty valve in the ground system.
The first stage booster, on its thirteenth flight, performed a booster burn to return to Vandenberg to land in Landing Zone 4 just over a quarter of a mile (0.43 km) from the pad from which it launched.
It was the second of three missions called “Tranche 0” for the Space Development Agency (SDA), an organization created by the Pentagon in 2019 to accelerate new space technologies. This first stage of the launch will orbit 28 satellites to demonstrate the concept of the missile tracking and data transmission network, known as the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture.
On board Falcon 9 were 11 data relay satellites, part of what SDA calls the “transport layer,” and two satellites of the so-called “tracking layer.” Ten of the communications satellites were built by Lockheed Martin and one by York Space. The two missile tracking satellites were built by SpaceX. After deployment, the satellites will be screened and maneuvered into an operational orbit at an altitude of about 620 miles (1,000 km).
The first ten satellites of the constellation were launched from Vandenberg on April 2, also by a Falcon 9 rocket. Four more satellites are scheduled to be launched on a mission later this year hosted by the Missile Defense Agency, according to the SDA fact sheet.
“I am very pleased with the initial commissioning of the first batch of satellites that we launched in April,” SDA Director Derek Turner said in a statement. “While the launch is very exciting news, it is what we will demonstrate in orbit that really matters – the ability to provide the fighter with tactical data links, out-of-sight targeting, and missile warning/missile tracking for advanced missiles.”
With its 61st launch of the year, SpaceX matches the total number of launches it has achieved in 2022. The Starlink mission, scheduled for Sunday night, will break that record.
“If tomorrow’s mission goes well, we will surpass last year’s number of flights,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk wrote on social networking site X, formerly known as Twitter. “SpaceX has delivered nearly 80 percent of the total mass of Earth’s payload to orbit in 2023. China accounts for about 10 percent and the rest of the world is about 10 percent.” He added, “We aim to carry out 10 Falcon flights in one month by the end of this year, and then 12 flights per month next year.”
The 62nd launch of 2023 is currently scheduled to take place from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center Sunday at 7:25 PM EST (2325 UTC).