At an Air Force Base on the southern California coast, SpaceX teams are quietly prepping a Falcon 9 rocket for a Sunday launch slated to shatter four of the company's records and push the envelope on reusability ambitions.
News 6 partner Florida Today reports SpaceX's 19th mission of 2018 is expected to take flight from Vandenberg Air Force Base during a 30-minute window that opens at 10:32 a.m. Pacific time, or 1:32 p.m. Eastern, with dozens of satellites for Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries.
Here's how the mission differs from previous launches.
First booster to fly three times
SpaceX made history in March 2017 when it successfully re-launched and landed a previously flown booster, bringing full circle its ambitions to drive down costs and increase rocket availability.
Sunday's mission takes it a step further: The first stage, first launched from Kennedy Space Center in May, will fly a third time after two successful missions. It's a critical milestone that will move forward CEO Elon Musk's vision of flying the boosters at least 10 times with minimal refurbishment and up to 100 times with moderate work.
Musk likens rocket reusability to airplanes, saying ticket prices would be unaffordable for passengers if aircraft were thrown away, or expended, after every flight. To date, SpaceX has conducted 31 successful landings on a mixture of drone ships and landing zones and has lowered the cost of Falcon 9 missions to about $50 million for customers flying on "flight proven" boosters.
After liftoff on Sunday, the booster will turn around for a Just Read the Instructions drone ship landing in the Pacific Ocean, paving the way for a possible fourth flight in the future.
First booster to fly from all SpaceX pads
The booster, known by its serial number as B1046, has a storied track record.
In May, it became SpaceX's first upgraded Block 5 variant of Falcon 9 to launch when it boosted Bangladesh's Bangabandhu-1 communications satellite from KSC's pad 39A. It was recovered using the Of Course I Still Love You drone ship.
Then in August, B1046 launched Merah Putih, an Indonesian communications satellite, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 40. Of Course I Still Love You again hosted the booster recovery.
If all goes according to plan Sunday, the booster will become SpaceX's first coast-to-coast launch vehicle to take flight from all three company pads.
Most spacecraft ever flown on SpaceX
When Falcon 9 delivers to orbit the 64 spacecraft safely tucked away in its payload fairing, it will become the largest successful rideshare mission ever flown on an American rocket, according to Spaceflight Industries.
The payloads include 49 cubesats and 15 microsats from 34 different organizations and 17 countries. Most are university-sponsored spacecraft or technology demonstrations.
Spaceflight focuses on rideshare launches, meaning missions with multiple spacecraft designed to reduce costs and increase access to space.
Most number of SpaceX launches in a year
In 2017, SpaceX broke its previous records with 17 launches – 13 from Florida, four from California.
But Sunday's launch, poised to be the 19th of 2018, breaks last year's record and lays the foundation for three more December launches after that. Those include:
Cape Canaveral: An International Space Station resupply mission on Dec. 4.
Cape Canaveral: A GPS satellite launch for the Air Force.
California: A commercial launch of 10 satellites for operator Iridium.
If all goes according to plan, that will mean 22 launches for the year.
The ISS resupply mission, slated for 1:38 p.m. on Dec. 4, will take thousands of pounds of supplies to the station from Launch Complex 40. After liftoff, the first stage will return to land at the Cape's Landing Zone 1, generating its signature triple sonic booms on the way.
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