SpaceX to Launch Majority of 4,000 Starlink Satellites From Cape Canaveral

SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off with a Dragon resupply ship on April 2, 2018. (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The draft environmental assessment for SpaceX’s proposed expansion at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) also revealed that Elon Musk’s rocket company plans to most of more than 4,000 satellites of its planned Starlink constellation from Cape Canaveral.

That will guarantee a busy schedule for SpaceX’s Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at KSC and LC-40 at the adjoining Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS). LC-39A can accommodate Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters while LC-40 is configured for the Falcon 9.

It’s not known exactly how many launches will be required to fill out Starlink, which is designed to provide global Internet access. SpaceX has also proposed a second constellation that would bring the total number of satellites to about 12,000.

The company’s expansion at KSC is designed to facilitate a major increase in launches from its launch pads on the Cape, according to the assessment.

“SpaceX estimates there may be up to ten events per year for a Falcon Heavy launch, and up to 63 landings (54 Falcon 9 single core landings and nine Falcon Heavy triple core landings) at the current CCAFS landing site or on the SpaceX drone ship,” the document said.

SpaceX is also expanding its operations at CCAFS at an abandoned U.S. Air Force satellite processing facility known as Area 59 for the processing of Crew Dragon vehicles.

“Existing facilities will be re-utilized to support Dragon processing requirements,” the environmental assessment said. “No major construction will be required. It will support Dragon processing requirements including hypergolic propellant (monomethlyhydrazine [MMH] and nitrogen tetroxide [NTO]) load and offload; post flight and static fire helium and propellant tank ullage venting; and system and component decontamination and checkouts.”

The rise in SpaceX has boosted Cape Canaveral’s launch totals in recent years. Last year, KSC tied the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for the most number of orbital launches with 12. The seven launches from CCAFS brought Cape Canaveral’s total to 19.

Of course, SpaceX is not the only launch provider operating in Florida. United Launch Alliance (ULA) uses LC-41 for Atlas V launches and LC-37 for Delta IV flights. The company is also developing a new Vulcan booster that will replace both launchers in the early 2020’s.

Atlas V booster launches the GOES-S weather satellite. (Credit: ULA)

Orbital ATK (now Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems) used LC-46 last August to launch the U.S. Air Force’s ORS-5 mission aboard a Minotaur IV booster. it was the first launch of a Minotaur rocket from the Cape.

Space Florida holds the launch license for the facility, which is located at CCAFS and is configured for small solid and liquid-fuel boosters. The state agency is looking for additional companies to use the pad.

“The proposed launch vehicles and their payloads would be launched into low earth orbit or geostationary orbit. All vehicles are expected to carry payloads, including satellites,” the assessment stated.

“LC-46 will also be used by NASA for the Orion Ascent Abort-2 test mission,” the document added. “This mission, scheduled for 2018, will launch an Orion mock-up using a first stage booster from a Peacekeeper missile modified by Orbital Sciences Corporation to demonstrate a successful abort under the highest aerodynamic loads it will experience in flight.”

Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft on Pad 39B. (Credit: NASA)

NASA is also preparing LC-39B for flights of the Space Launch System. The pad is being refurbished for multiple uses. Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems would use it for its planned OmegA booster.

Adjacent to LC-39B is KSC’s newest launch pad, LC-39C, which was built for small launch vehicles.

“Launch Pad 39C will serve as a multi-purpose site allowing companies to test vehicles and capabilities in the smaller class of rockets, making it more affordable for smaller companies to break into the commercial spaceflight market,” the assessment stated.

“As part of this capability, NASA’s Ground Systems Development and Operations Program developed a universal propellant servicing system, which can provide liquid oxygen and liquid methane fueling capabilities for a variety of small class rockets,” the report added.

Credit: NASA

KSC’s long-term master plan also calls for the construction of a new launch pad, LC-48, for small-class launch vehicles near LC-39A.

“Development could also include construction of a Horizontal Integration Facility, Manufacturing and Refurbishment Facility, and Vertical Landing Facility near the launch complex, on other undeveloped areas at KSC, in an area sited for industrial use, on CCAFS, or elsewhere off Center property,” the assessment said.

Meanwhile, Blue Origin is preparing LC-36 for the planned debut of the company’s New Glenn orbital booster in 2020. The company is also modifying the adjoining LC-11 complex to accommodate testing of the BE-4 engine, which will be used in the new rocket.

New Glenn is a reusable, vertical-landing booster with 3.85 million pounds of thrust, (Credit: Blue Origin)

Blue Origin is also building a manufacturing and processing facility on 139 acres (56 hectares) of land in Exploration Park Phase 2 “to support development of reusable launch vehicles utilizing rocket-powered Vertical Take-off and Vertical Landing systems,” the assessment stated.

“There are also plans for additional development by Blue Origin on a parcel of land south of the current development site for expansion of their manufacturing, assembly, and test facilities,” the report added.

Global satellite Internet provider OneWeb is constructing a 100,000 ft2 (9,290 m2) satellite integration facility at Exploration Park that will open this year.

RUAG Space USA, a subsidiary of a Swiss company, will be manufacturing satellite structures for OneWeb at a manufacturing plant in nearby south Titusville, the report said.

Moon Express has leased LC-17 and LC-18 from the U.S. Air Force for the development of commercial lunar landers. Renovations to the launch complexes include engine test stands and flight areas for testing landers.

Officials are also hoping to attract more business for the former Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF). Possible users of the long runway include two air-launch companies, Virgin Orbit and Stratolaunch.

On Wednesday, Space Florida agreed to spend up to $1 million to upgrade utilities at the landing strip to support test flights by an unidentified company that is developing a horizontal launch and landing system.

The environmental assessment says that former SLF could be utilized for a broad range of programs, including “commercial spaceflight program and mission support aviation, aviation test operations including unmanned aerial vehicles, airborne research and technology development and demonstration, parabolic flight missions, testing and evaluation of experimental spacecraft, ground based research and training, and development and demonstration of future supersonic passenger flight vehicles.”

It’s likely that not all of the planned programs will come to pass. However, it appears that Cape Canaveral’s role as one of the world’s leading launch sites — if not the leading site — is assured.