West Coast Falcon 9 launches 13 demonstration satellites for military mega-constellation

A double-exposure captures the launch of a Falcon 9 on a mission for the Space Development Agency and its landing seven and half minutes later. Image: SpaceX.

A Falcon 9 rocket launched 13 demonstration satellites for a planned U.S. military mega-constellation from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on Saturday. It was the 61st orbital launch of the year for SpaceX.

The Falcon 9 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 4E at 7:25 a.m. PDT (10:25 a.m. EDT / 1425 UTC). After stage separation and ignition of the upper stage, about two and half minutes into flight the satellite-delivery mission entered a news blackout, typical for national security missions.

It was the third launch attempt in as many days for the mission. A problem with the Falcon 9’s engine 4 scrubbed the launch on Aug. 31 and on Sept. 1 the countdown was halted with 20 minutes left on the clock by a balky valve in a ground system.

The first stage booster, making its 13th flight, performed a boost-back burn to head back to Vandenberg for a touchdown at Landing Zone 4 a little over a quarter mile (0.43 km) from the pad it launched from.

It was the second of three so-called “Tranche 0” missions for the Space Development Agency (SDA), an organisation established by the Pentagon in 2019 to fast-track new space technologies. This first phase of launches will orbit at total of 28 satellites to demonstrate a concept for a missile tracking and data relay network, known as the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture.

Aboard the Falcon 9 were 11 data-relay satellites, part of what SDA calls the ‘Transport Layer’ and two satellites for the so-called ‘Tracking Layer’. Ten of the communications satellites were built by Lockheed Martin and one by York Space. The two missile-tracking satellites were constructed by SpaceX. Following deployment, the satellites will undergo checkout and be maneuvered into an operational orbit about 620 miles (1,000 km) high.

The 13 satellites for the Space Development Agency’s second Tranche 0 mission are glimpsed shortly before being encapsulated in the Falcon 9 payload fairing. Image: SDA.

The first ten satellites for the constellation were launched from Vandenberg on Apr. 2, also by a Falcon 9. A further four satellites are scheduled for launch on a mission later this year hosted by the Missile Defence Agency, according to an SDA fact sheet.

“I’m very pleased with the initial operation of the first group of satellites we launched in April,” Derek Tournear, SDA director, said in statement. “While the launch is very exciting news, it’s what we will demonstrate on orbit that really matters— the ability to provide the warfighter with tactical data links, beyond line of sight targeting, and the missile warning/missile tracking of advanced missiles.”

With its 61st launch of year, SpaceX has matched the total number of launches it achieved in 2022. A Starlink mission, scheduled for Sunday evening, will break that record number.

“If tomorrow’s mission goes well, we will exceed last year’s flight count,” wrote SpaceX founder Elon Musk on the social media site X, formerly known as Twitter. “SpaceX has delivered ~80 percent of all Earth payload mass to orbit in 2023. China is ~10 percent and rest of world other ~10 percent.” He added: “Aiming for 10 Falcon flights in a month by end of this year, then 12 per month next year.”

That 62nd launch of 2023 is currently scheduled to liftoff from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on Sunday at 7:25 p.m. EDT (2325 UTC).