Update 6:50pm EST : Right at the top of its launch window, a brand-new Falcon 9 rocket launched from Florida on Thursday evening. The rocket appeared to soar through its first-stage flight without any issues, dropping its GPS III payload into a parking orbit. The first stage then returned to Earth and safely landed on a drone ship. This was SpaceX’s 20th launch of 2020.
Pending a review of engine data from this launch, it is likely that NASA and SpaceX will clear the Falcon 9 for flight and press ahead with the Crew-1 mission on November 14.
Original post 3:35pm EST: SpaceX has not launched a brand-new rocket since June, when it boosted a GPS III satellite for the US Space Force on a Falcon 9 rocket. Since that time the company has launched several commercial missions and its own Starlink satellites on a variety of previously flown rockets, and they were all successful.
However, when the company tried to launch a new Falcon 9 first stage on October 2—this was for yet another GPS satellite, named GPS III-04—the attempt was scrubbed at T-2 seconds. Later, SpaceX’s Hans Koenigsmann explained that two of the rocket’s nine first-stage engines ignited early during the early October launch attempt, and this triggered an automatic abort of the engines.
This problem was eventually traced to a tiny bit of lacquer used during a metal-treatment process that was supposed to be removed before flight but was not. Now the company believes it has addressed the problem, which is a good thing because the company has three important missions coming up for the US government, all slated to fly on new rockets.
First up is a second attempt to launch the GPS III-04 satellite, and this comes on Thursday evening. A Falcon 9 rocket, with two of its Merlin engines replaced, is due to lift off at 6:24pm EST (23:24 UTC) from Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The nearly four-ton satellite will be deployed into a transfer orbit with an apogee of about 20,000km.
Provided this mission is a success and resolves the lacquer issue, SpaceX will then proceed with its second crewed launch, that of a Dragon spacecraft carrying NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker, along with Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency mission specialist Sôichi Noguchi, to the International Space Station. That mission is presently scheduled for November 14.
And finally, SpaceX has another mission for NASA scheduled for no earlier than November 21, the launch of the Earth-observing Sentinel-6 spacecraft from Vandenberg Air Force Base.
Even as it has investigated the lacquer issue, SpaceX has been able to fly its flight-proven rockets because those first stages had already been shown to be not affected by the manufacturing issue. It is also worth noting that both the Space Force and NASA have come to agreements with SpaceX to fly their missions on used first stages for future missions.
Provided this evening’s GPS III mission lifts off—the current weather forecast supports a 60 percent chance of favorable conditions—SpaceX will attempt to land the first stage on its Of Course I Still Love You droneship. The company’s launch webcast below should begin about 15 minutes before the launch window opens.
Listing image by Trevor Mahlmann for Ars