SpaceX completed its 52nd successful Falcon 9 launch in 52 weeks, maintaining an average cadence of one launch per week for a full 12 months.
Simultaneously, the Starlink 4-2 rideshare mission set a new Falcon 9 booster reuse record, marked SpaceX’s 150th consecutive successful launch, and was one of the most complex commercial launches ever.
In addition to 34 new Starlink V1.5 satellites that joined nearly 3,000 other SpaceX spacecraft in orbit, Starlink 4-2 deployed the company’s largest rideshare payload to date – the BlueWalker 3 communications satellite from 1.5 tons (~3300 lb) of AST SpaceMobile.
The Falcon 9 lifted off on schedule with the 12-tonne (~26,500 lb) combined payload safely secured inside its composite payload fairing at 9:20 p.m. EDT (01:20 UTC) on Saturday. September 10. Falcon 9 Booster B1058, a nine-engine first stage that made its debut launching two NASA astronauts in May 2020, was responsible for lifting the rocket’s expendable upper stage, retrievable fairing and most payload. time outside the Earth’s atmosphere.
28 months later, B1058 lifted off with Starlink 4-2 and BlueWalker 3 on its 14th orbital-class spaceflight and launch, breaking Falcon 9’s booster reuse record. The rocket performed no differently than at each time before, burning for just under three minutes before deploying the upper stage and returning to Earth. About nine minutes after liftoff, B1058 landed safely on drone ship A Shortfall Of Gravitas (ASOG), likely preparing the booster to break its own record before the end of 2022. With 13 launches already under their belt, the boosters B1051 and B1060 will likely follow B1058 beyond the same 14-flight milestone in the near future.
Once freed from the booster, Falcon 9’s expendable upper stage launched the most complex commercial launch ever by SpaceX. Measuring about six minutes, the first and longest burn brought the second stage and payload into an elliptical orbit a few hundred kilometers above the Earth’s surface. A second burn followed about 45 minutes after liftoff, raising the lower end of this ellipse to deploy BlueWalker 3 into a circular orbit about 500 kilometers (~310 mi). Using a massive antenna, AST SpaceMobile’s first large prototype satellite will eventually attempt to communicate directly with mobile phones to provide a level of connectivity equivalent to 5G/LTE, all from space.
Once freed from its carpool payload, attention shifted to Starlink. In theory, SpaceX could have taken the easy way out and greatly simplified the mission by deploying all 34 satellites at the same altitude as BlueWalker 3, allowing them to simultaneously reach their operational orbits of 540 kilometers (~336 mi) in days instead of months. Instead, SpaceX pursued an exceptionally complex mission requiring five Falcon 9 upper stage burns.
After deploying BlueWalker 3, Falcon 9 S2 lowered one end of its orbit around T+67 minutes, followed by a fourth burn to lower the other end nearly two hours after liftoff. The upper stage then rotated end to end and eventually released all 34 Starlink satellites at an altitude of approximately 335 kilometers (~208 mi), where debris and faulty satellites will take days – rather than years – to reintegrate. Earth’s atmosphere and burn.
Although SpaceX does not confirm post-payload operations, Falcon 9 S2 also had to perform a fifth and final burn to deorbit quickly, ensuring the mission produced only five benign pieces of debris. In their very low orbits, these five pieces (four “tension rods” and the BlueWalker 3 payload adapter) will pose virtually no threat to other spacecraft or rockets and should return within a few weeks.
Starlink 4-2 was SpaceX’s 52nd successful Falcon 9 launch since Sept. 14, 2021, meaning the company has technically already met CEO Elon Musk’s goal of 52 launches in a year — but not a calendar year. Perhaps even more impressively, the mission was the 150th consecutive successful launch for SpaceX’s Falcon. No other rocket (Falcon 9) or family of rockets (Falcon) has been launched more times in a row without failure.
Finally, Starlink 4-2 was SpaceX’s 42nd launch of 2022. If the company continues its average pace over the past three months, it could end 2022 having completed more than 60 Falcon launches in a calendar year.
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