After a few days of delays that brought the missions closer together, SpaceX is now preparing to launch two batches of 53 Starlink satellites just eight hours apart – one from Florida and the other from California.
Originally slated for an early May 10 launch, which would have tied SpaceX’s Vandenberg Space Force Base (VSFB) SLC-4E launch pad rotation record, Starlink 4-13 slipped to May 12 during of the last days. 2,400 miles (~3,900 km) to the east, SpaceX’s Starlink mission 4-15 – preparing to launch from pad LC-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) – has recently found in the opposite boat.
On April 22, Spaceflight Now announced that Starlink 4-15 was scheduled to launch no earlier than (NET) May 8. At the time, Starlink 4-13 was also scheduled to launch on the 8th, placing the two Starlink missions within hours of each other. On April 28, Spaceflight Now updated their well-documented launch schedule, revealing that Starlink 4-13 had slipped to May 10 and Starlink 4-15 to May 16, ending their competition. Finally, on May 7 and 8, photographer Ben Cooper reported that Starlink 4-15 had moved at the top at 2:08 a.m. EDT (06:08 UTC), May 13 and FAA documents revealed that Starlink 4-13 slipped again at 3:29 p.m. PDT (22:29 UTC), May 12.
In other words, missions found themselves hours apart again after weeks of juggling and unrelated delays. Barring additional issues, Starlink 4-13 and Starlink 4-15 should launch just 7 hours and 41 minutes apart. At the end of 2021, the shortest time between two Falcon launches is currently 15 hours and 17 minutes. But above all, the constant back and forth – only to end up with the two launches within hours of each other – shows just how agonizing and unforgiving the planning behind each rocket launch truly is.
Appropriately, Starlink’s drone 4-13 directed towards the sea just about 60 hours before the scheduled launch and Starlink 4-15’s drone has yet to depart, which keeps the launch dates for both missions as uncertain as possible without guaranteeing that delays will arrive. Both drones have to be towed about 400 miles downstream at speeds that almost never exceed 8-10 mph, which translates to a minimum two-day trip, even without stops, slowdowns or detours.
Beyond the record potential, Starlink 4-13 is an otherwise ordinary mission that will launch 53 other Starlink V1.5 satellites at an ordinary inclination of 53.2 degrees, which simply means they will end up in the same “shell”. than other satellites in Starlink’s “Group 4” shell. Despite launching from the opposite coast of the United States, Starlink 4-15 will be almost identical and is expected to deploy 53 other Starlink V1.5 satellites on the same orbital shell. However, it seems that Starlink 4-15 will be have some very unusual characteristics.
Instead of performing a hockey stick-like ‘dogleg’ maneuver to avoid flying over populated islands in the Bahamas, Falcon 9 will fly directly over the country’s largest western island and attempt to land right in the middle of the archipelago, potentially landing on a drone just 5-15 miles from Nassau and a few other islands. The fact that SpaceX was able to convince both the Bahamas and the US FAA to allow it to fly the trajectory shown above is extremely impressive and belies a Deep confidence in SpaceX’s expertise and in the safety and reliability of Falcon 9. At the same time, SpaceX can take some degree of risk, as the tiny margins of error in the trajectory likely mean that the shutdown system Falcon 9’s automatic flight system will be programmed to destroy the rocket at the slightest deviation from the planned trajectory.
Adding to the oddity, Starlink 4-15 will be the first in a long line of 45 Dedicated Starlink launches to launch a new Falcon 9 booster. According to Next Spaceflight, Falcon 9 B1073 will claim this unusual first, almost entirely flipping the table on the precedent of conservative government customers – still coy about reusing SpaceX – scrambling to secure space. increasingly rare launch opportunities on new Falcon 9 boosters. Alternatively, it is possible – but unlikely – that SpaceX has implemented significant modifications to Falcon 9 B1073 that it wishes to independently verify before risking the customer payloads.
With any luck, the new rocket will perform flawlessly and provide some nearby Bahamians with a truly unique experience: the chance to watch a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster land at sea… from the comfort of their own homes.