SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket from its west coast launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Saturday. The mission included a scientific payload for NASA, NOAA, and ESA called Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich. “The spacecraft is named after Dr. Michael Freilich, the former director of NASA’s Earth Science Division and a tireless advocate for advancing satellite measurements of the ocean,” according to NASA.
Rare SpaceX launch
This flight also marked the first SpaceX rocket launch from California in 529 days. SpaceX regularly sends Falcon 9 rockets to space from Florida, for comparison, highlighting the rarity of west coast launches.
SpaceX started launching from Vandenberg back in 2012 to give its customers access to polar orbits. In the early days, a firm called Iridium was a big customer for polar launches with their next-gen constellation of communication satellites.
Once they finished deploying their satellites, we’ve seen dramatically far fewer launches that require a polar orbit. Combine this factor with the polar corridor on the east coast range at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and this has left Vandenberg in a weird launch spot with single digit launches annually. For contrast, Florida has seen more than two dozen launches this year.
The drought of west coast SpaceX launches ended on Saturday with the launch of the newest Earth observation satellite for NASA, NOAA, and ESA. The satellite’s mission is to observe global sea levels, hence the need to launch it into a polar orbit. Polar orbits allow spacecraft to see more of the Earth’s surface as the Earth rotates.
This mission is an extension of the partnership between US and Europeans agencies to continue researching ocean sea levels and climate. The Sentinel-6 mission extends out to 2030 with Sentinel-6B on track to be deployed in 2025.
Booster’s first flight
The Falcon 9 that launched this payload included a brand new first stage booster. This is something rare to see as SpaceX successfully pushes the boundaries of reusability with its first stage boosters.
SpaceX recovers the first stage of its Falcon 9 rockets for use on future launches. In turn, this reduces the cost of spaceflight and access to space. While landing boosters on droneships in the Atlantic Ocean has become commonplace for missions from Florida, Saturday’s launch from California included a landing zone booster return.
Saturday’s mission was originally slated for earlier in November, but the recent SpaceX GPS III SV04 mission abort required a joint investigation between SpaceX and NASA. This investigation temporarily grounded new SpaceX boosters while they looked back at flight data and inspected new engines. Teams later traced the issue back to a lacquer that was applied to a piece of engine during the anodizing process. Two of the engines on this booster (B1063) had to be replaced before liftoff.
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