A four-ton cloud-penetrating radar observation satellite for the German military ascended into orbit Saturday from California atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, beginning a 10-year mission to collect reconnaissance imagery at all times.
The Falcon 9 rocket sprung to life and lifted away from its launch pad at Vandenberg Space Force Base at 7:19:52 a.m. PDT (10:19:52 a.m. EDT; 2:19:52 p.m. GMT ), rumbling through a layer of low-level fog. before heading into clear skies for the rest of the ascent into space with Germany’s SARah 1 radar imaging satellite.
The mission on Saturday continued a busy launch schedule for SpaceX, which on Friday launched a Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center in Florida with 53 Starlink internet satellites. Another Falcon 9 is scheduled to take off from Cape Canaveral shortly after midnight Sunday with a Globalstar communications satellite.
Ten Merlin engines burned one million pounds of kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants during Saturday’s mission. Heading south, the first stage’s nine engines fired for nearly two and a half minutes, then the booster separated from the upper stage to begin maneuvers back to Vandenberg, a military spaceport on the central coast. of California between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The first-stage thruster flipped using cold gas thrusters to fly in a tail-first orientation, then ignited three of its engines for “boost-back” combustion to reverse course and return to Vandenberg. The propellant reached a maximum altitude, or apogee, of about 426,000 feet (130 kilometers) before falling back into the atmosphere.
The rocket steered through the thicker air using hypersonic grid fins, landing on the concrete airstrip at Landing Zone 4 in Vandenberg about 8 minutes after liftoff. The landing marked the 125th recovery of a Falcon booster and the sixth Falcon rocket landing at Vandenberg. This was the third flight for this booster, tail number B1071.
Landing confirmed. The Falcon 9 first stage booster has successfully returned to Landing Zone 4 at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California.
This is the 6th Falcon landing at Vandenberg and the 125th Falcon booster recovery overall.https://t.co/PTyxDAtRce pic.twitter.com/5L89hvi4m2
— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) June 18, 2022
SpaceX’s live video webcast followed the Falcon 9 booster’s return to Earth and ended coverage of upper stage activities at the request of the German military. The upper stage fired its single Merlin engine to enter a preliminary orbit, and the mission entered a cover blackout until the German military confirmed nearly an hour and 20 minutes after launch that the SARah 1 satellite successfully deployed from the Falcon 9 rocket.
Airbus ground controllers, which built the SARah 1 satellite, are expected to make contact with the spacecraft later Saturday.
SARah 1 begins a 10-year mission providing reconnaissance images to the Bundeswehr, the German army.
The Falcon 9 was targeting a polar orbit a few hundred miles above Earth, but the exact altitude and inclination achieved during Saturday’s mission was not immediately available.
SARah 1 is the first of three radar imaging satellites the German government ordered from industry in 2013. Bremen-based OHB is the prime contractor for the SARah program and is building the second and third satellites in the series . Airbus teams in southern Germany built SARah 1, the program’s first and largest satellite.
When development contracts were signed in 2013, launches of the SARah satellites were scheduled for 2018 and 2019. But technical issues with the satellites, efforts to improve encryption on the spacecraft, and delays caused by the COVID pandemic -19 have postponed the first launch of the SARah spacecraft until 2022.
Once engineers completed testing on the spacecraft, SARah 1 traveled from Germany to the United States by ship, arriving in Baltimore before a cross-country trip to reach the California launch base.
The SARah 1 satellite weighs about four tons, according to Airbus. The contractor said in a statement that the SARah 1 satellite carries the “latest, highest resolution radar technology” to collect all-weather, day and night imagery of sites around the world for the German military.
The German Defense Procurement Agency manages the development of the SARah satellites. The Airbus-built craft that was launched on Saturday is equipped with an active phased array radar antenna, drawing on technology developed for the TerraSAR, TanDEM-X and Paz civilian radar observation satellites.
“This technology offers the benefits of very fast pointing and very flexible antenna beam shaping to deliver images in record time,” Airbus said in a press release.
Two small SARah spacecraft built by OHB will fly with synthetic aperture passive radar reflectors. The German military said earlier this month that the second and third SARah satellites will share a ride on a Falcon 9 rocket later this year.
Radar imaging satellites have the advantage of resolving the Earth’s surface through darkness and cloud cover, which prevents optical spy satellites from always seeing the ground.
The three SARah satellites replace the German military’s constellation of five SAR-Lupe spacecraft, which was launched from 2006 to 2008.
“Today, without satellites, reconnaissance, communication and navigation are almost impossible,” the German military said in a press release earlier this month.
“The new SARah satellites ensure that the Bundeswehr has global imagery reconnaissance capability regardless of time of day or weather,” the German military said. “At the same time, they provide support in early detection and crisis management.”
The launch of SARah 1 marked SpaceX’s 25th mission of the year and the company‘s fifth flight from Vandenberg so far in 2022. SpaceX’s next launch from California is scheduled for no earlier than July 8 with a batch of Starlink internet satellites.
SpaceX is on pace to launch more than 50 times this year, surpassing the record of 31 missions set by the company last year. The launch on Saturday was the third of six Falcon 9 missions planned by SpaceX for June.
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