SpaceX silently announced that Falcon 9 had won a contract for a South Korean military communications satellite, to be launched from the LC-40 platform at the Cape Canaveral Air Station (CCAFS) at earlier in November 2019.
Outsourced from Lockheed Martin to Airbus Defense and Space in 2016, the satellite – known as Anasis II (formerly KMilSatCom 1) – is based on a common bus built by Airbus and could weigh between 3,500 and 6,000 kilograms ( 7500 to 13,200 pounds). Falcon 9 will be responsible for launching Anasis II on the geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), after which the satellite will use its own onboard propulsion to make the orbit circular and start operations. Although the Korean deal brings SpaceX closer to its target of 18-21 launches (excluding Starlink) in 2019, it also raises the question: what mystery missions are missing in public launch manifests?
As previously reported in the Teslarati articles and newsletters, the comments from SpaceX executives in February and May 2019 reiterate the company's expectations for launches from 18 to 21 in 2019, excluding Starlink. Hofeller's "more than 21 launches" certainly took place more than two months before the catastrophic failure of Crew Dragon, who threw the manifest for launching the spacecraft into limbo.
Three months later, SpaceX's president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, reiterated the idea that SpaceX could beat its launch record in 2018 (21 launches) or at least get closer. Curiously, she specifically noted that the so-called SpaceX Launch Manifesto 18-21 excluded Starlink missions, which SpaceX has already launched. In short, SpaceX has made 7 launches in 2019 (6 if Starlink v0.9 is excluded). The company's public manifesto – unofficially gathered by fans – indicates 9 more launches planned for a total of 15 non-Starlink launches in 2019.
To achieve the 18-21 expected shotwell launches from Shotwell, 3 to 6 missions are apparently absent from publicly-run launch manifests. It's unclear whether SpaceX has enough ready-to-launch customers to meet these ambitious goals. In addition, SpaceX is currently on the verge of completing 8 launches in total (1 Starlink) in the first half of 2019. In 2017 and 2018 (two years without interruption), SpaceX has consistently launched an equivalent number (or more ) missions during the first semester. the year compared to the second half of the year and both years reached their peak at 9 launches in the second half.
SpaceX will have to beat this H2 record to reach 18 launches in 2019, even if Starlink missions are counted. According to SpaceX, no less than 1 to 5 additional Starlink launches are planned in 2019, bringing the total number of missions to 20-27 according to the best scenarios. Specifically, between SpaceX's Pad 39A and LC-40 launch centers, the company could easily maintain a bi-weekly or even weekly pace (13-26 launches in the second half of 2019). The real constraint, however, is the availability of equipment – that is, if SpaceX has the rocket parts and the satellite or satellites ready for the flight it needs to launch a given mission.
Can SpaceX do it?
This is an extremely difficult question to answer, because all the details that really matter belong to the type of organization and corporate secrets that are not disclosed by SpaceX. From a technical and practical point of view, the answer is "yes". If Falcon Heavy Flight 3 (STP-2) is run successfully, SpaceX will have an impressive fleet of at least 8 proven Falcon 9 boosters in flight. Even assuming that no progress is made beyond the current average of about 110 days (~ 3.5 months) in block 5, the current SpaceX fleet should be able to support immediately four launches and an additional delay from 8 to 12 before the end of 2019.
The main limitation would therefore be SpaceX's ability to produce Falcon 9 upper floors and fairings, as well as the endurance and quality of the company's management and employees. Even then, the question of SpaceX's 3 to 6 mystery launches will remain unanswered until the launch customer or vendor chooses to open. For the moment, we are waiting …
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