SpaceX Marks 100th Launch with Historical Polar Lift from the Cape

Featured Image: Liftoff! as Falcon 9 and SAOCOM- 1B make their way into orbit. (Image credit: Next Horizons Spaceflight/Stephen Marr)

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA – Elon Musk’s experiment with rocketry has reached a huge milestone. On Sunday, August 30, 2020, SpaceX launched its 100th Falcon rocket, carrying the much anticipated SAOCOM-1B remote sensing satellite to a polar orbit. Launch proceeded with no difficulties after many delays for a satellite which was originally to be launched in January from Vandenberg AFB in California. The flight also included two rideshare smallsats, GNOMES-1 and Tyvak-0172. Approximately eight minutes after liftoff, the booster returned to Cape Canaveral in a rare LZ-1 landing.

Landing burn at LZ-1! (Image credit: Next Horizons Spaceflight/Matt Cutshall)

From my observations on the beach a few miles south: The booster climbed into the overcast sky, arching high above my head. The sound wave took about 30-40 seconds to hit me from the initial launch, but once it did, I was able to hear the booster continuously until FSCO and through the boostback burn and landing. When you are present and see a booster falling out of the sky at faster than the speed of sound it is a surreal moment. It almost seems like something out of a war movie. It seems the booster is moving too fast to be able to stop. Then the sonic boom hits you. And while 50 miles away in Orlando, people were surprised by the shaking of windows, in person the boom felt and sounded more like a pop. The entire experience was incredibly surreal and super cool.

This mission was historical for many reasons.

First, it was the 100th launch of a Falcon rocket, a huge accomplishment considering their tenth launch occurred in 2013, 11 years after their inception. SpaceX only considers this the 95th launch of a Falcon rocket because they do not count failures. They do have an advantage because their largest customer right now is themselves with the Starlink system taking up most rockets. This is a win-win, because they only have to pay the initial cost of the rocket and fuel for the hundreds of launches Starlink will require and they get to extend their reusability records substantially at low risk to client payloads.

Next, this was the launch of SAOCOM 1B. This Argentinian satellite completes a two satellite constellation for Argentina’s space program, CONAE. (6 if their partnership with Italian COSMO-SkyMed is considered). This constellation is intended for use in emergency tracking and mitigation using its synthetic-aperture array RADAR. The system is also crucial for Argentina, as it will also be used to track soil moisture levels.

Finally, this flight was historic as the first polar orbit launch from Kennedy Space Center since 1969. A polar orbit is one which passes over both poles. These orbits are useful in remote sensing satellites, as the orbit can be adjusted to travel over the same area in the same lighting conditions on a repeating basis, usually a 16 day cycle for single satellites. These orbits have an inclination which is at or near 90 degrees. Launches from KSC to polar orbit are rare since Vandenberg AFB built its launch complexes, because such an orbit requires a trajectory over Cuba if launched from Florida. These launches can occur when using a Falcon 9 booster, because it can be flown back to the launch site, instead of being ditched in the Caribbean.

Next Horizons Spaceflight extends our congratulations to Elon Musk and all the hardworking SpaceX employees past and present who have had a hand in such a great accomplishment! We look forward to your continued growth and accomplishments.

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