by Ryan Whitwam
SpaceX had hoped to launch a pair of Falcon 9 rockets on Sunday, but weather early in the day threatened to scuttle the entire event. However, the skies cleared just in time for SpaceX to make history late in the day. The launch of the SAOCOM 1B satellite was SpaceX’s 100th and its first-ever polar orbit insertion from Florida. In fact, it was the first by anyone in decades.
Early on Sunday (August 30th), SpaceX had to scrap its planned launch of several dozen Starlink satellites. Things were looking grim until just minutes before the scheduled SAOCOM launch, but SpaceX was able to squeak by. So, SpaceX’s 100th launch carried the SAOCOM 1B satellite and a pair of smaller rideshare payload satellites into space. The company’s first launch was in March 2006, and it exploded shortly after liftoff.
SAOCOM 1B is an Earth observation satellite designed to collect radar imagery for first responders, environmental scientists, and more. SpaceX launched both SAOCOM 1A and 1B, delivering the satellites to polar orbits. A polar orbit is one in which a spacecraft orbits passing over the poles rather than nearer to the equator. This is ideal for Earth observatories like SAOCOM because a polar orbit allows the spacecraft to see the entire surface of the planet over time as it rotates.
Getting into a polar orbit requires more energy than equatorial, and launch operators rarely attempt that from Florida. SAOCOM 1B was initially supposed to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, but the mission was delayed and ended up at Cape Canaveral. And that’s the second reason this launch was historic. The last time a mission launched from Florida into a polar orbit was 1969 when the ESSA-9 weather satellite rode into space aboard a Delta E1 rocket.
Heading for the souther polar corridor from Florida includes the possibility of flying over land shortly after launch, which is something you want to avoid. In this launch, SpaceX performed a “dog-leg” maneuver to curve around the southern part of Florida. The first stage detached before it encountered any more land, but the second stage did fly over Cuba briefly. The 45th Space Wing noted there was no danger given the second stage’s altitude, and the mission reached the desired orbit without incident. The first stage even landed safely at LZ1 in Florida. All around, a successful 100th flight.
Originally published at https://www.extremetech.com on August 31, 2020.