SpaceX announces plans to carry out its 65th and 66th launches in 2023

SpaceX, the private aerospace company founded by Elon Musk, is gearing up for two back-to-back Starlink missions this week. The first mission, Starlink Group 7-2, successfully launched 21 satellites into low-Earth orbit from Space Launch Complex (SLC) 4 East at the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. This launch marked SpaceX’s 51st launch from SLC-4E and achieved the second-quickest turnaround time of the pad to date.

The rapid turnaround time of just nine days, 16 hours, and 31 minutes demonstrates SpaceX’s commitment to increasing its launch cadence. Currently, SpaceX aims to launch 10 times per month by the end of 2023 and 12 times per month in 2024. The company has been steadily reducing the pad turnaround time, which averaged nearly 40 days in the middle of 2022, to approximately 11-13 days between missions.

To achieve its ambitious goal of 144 launches next year, SpaceX will need to further reduce the turnaround time to around six days. This will enable them to match the cadence supported by their drone ship, Of Course I Still Love You. The proximity of the West Coast missions to the port allows for a quicker turnaround time compared to the East Coast missions.

The remaining launches to achieve their goal will primarily come from SLC-40, with Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) launching the occasional Falcon Heavy or Dragon mission. However, to maintain the desired launch cadence, SpaceX may need to increase the number of return-to-launch site missions or even build another drone ship.

SLC-40 has also significantly increased its launch cadence. In mid-2022, the pad was launching a mission every 11-13 days, but this has now been cut in half, with an average time between launches of five to six days. On the other hand, LC-39A’s launch rate has plateaued at approximately one launch every 30 days due to the necessary pad conversions before Falcon Heavy and Dragon missions.

The booster used for the Starlink Group 7-2 mission, named B1071-11, has an impressive track record, having supported 10 previous missions. After liftoff, the booster attempted to land on SpaceX’s autonomous spaceport drone ship, Of Course I Still Love You, which was stationed 642 kilometers downrange and supported by GO Beyond.

The payload fairing of the Falcon 9 rocket contained 21 Starlink v2 Mini satellites. Following the launch, SpaceX planned to recover both halves of the fairing using their multi-purpose recovery vessel, GO Beyond. These satellites were deployed into a low-Earth orbit and will use their onboard thrusters to raise their orbit to a circular one.

Prior to these two Starlink missions, SpaceX had already launched 5,070 Starlink satellites. Currently, 4,724 of them remain in orbit, with 4,692 functioning properly. Most of these satellites are part of the first-generation constellation, although SpaceX is now focusing on its second-generation constellation.

The successful completion of the Starlink Group 7-2 mission marked SpaceX’s 255th Falcon 9 launch and 65th launch of the year. It was also the 187th Falcon 9 launch with a flight-proven booster and the 195th time a Falcon core has been reused. The landing of the Falcon core on Of Course I Still Love You was SpaceX’s 225th successful landing and their 151st consecutive successful landing.

Just two days after the Starlink Group 7-2 mission, SpaceX is preparing for their next launch – Starlink Group 6-16. This will be their 62nd Falcon 9 mission of the year and will deploy 22 Starlink v2 Mini satellites into a low-Earth orbit. The specific booster supporting this mission is currently unknown, but it’s expected to land on the drone ship Just Read the Instructions, located approximately 640 kilometers downrange.

SpaceX’s frequent launches and successful reuse of Falcon 9 boosters demonstrate their commitment to revolutionizing space travel and satellite deployment. With their ambitious goals for increasing launch cadence and expanding the Starlink constellation, SpaceX continues to push the boundaries of what is possible in the realm of private space exploration.

Image credit: Jack Beyer for NSF