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SpaceX Falcon 9 booster spied on highway as triple-satellite launching moves right

A SpaceX Falcon 9 was released from the company's Hawthorne, California factory on January 22nd, signifying a likely shipment of the flight-proven rocket that will help launch Canada's trio of Radarsat Constellation Mission satellites.

Delayed from mid-February to early March 2019 after an unplanned landing anomaly the Falcon 9 Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) helps to narrow down the rocket likeliest to launch the Canadian Space Agency's (CSA) radar satellite constellation.

Do the Booster Shuffle!

Falcon 9 B1050 to land (albe in the Atlantic Ocean last December, the imminent launch of two heavy-duty Falcon heavy missions, and the thus far schedule-orbital launch debut of Crew's Dragon, SpaceX's fleet of available boosters – all flight-proven

B1050's future is uncertain after suffering a smashed interstage and soaking in salt water for several days, while B1051 is officially assigned to Crew Dragon's orbital launch debut, known as Demo-1 (DM-1). Falcon 9 B1052 and B1053 are unknown quantities and B1054 which is expended after a high-value US Air Force launch, ie SpaceX's final mission of 2018. It's probably safe to bet that B1052, B1053, and B1055 will be the next three boosters to support a Falcon Heavy launch (or two), currently NET March and April 2019. All three of these Falcon Heavy (FH) boosters have completed static fire tests in Texas and both side boosters have arrived at SpaceX's Florida facilities within the last ~ 6 weeks. [19659008] A Falcon Heavy side booster was spotted eastbound in Arizona on November 10th. (Reddit – beast-sam)

Assuming that Falcon Heavy Flight 2 and 3 use the same exact boosters, SpaceX production technicians and engineers may already be nearing completion of another Falcon 9 booster (B1056, presumably) at the Hawthorne factory, although they are probably 1-2 weeks away from that milestone. If, Falcon Heavy Flight 3 (presumed to be the USAF's STP-2 mission) does not reuse all three first stage boosters from Flight 2 (commercial payload Arabsat 6A), then Hawthorne wants to build, ship, and test anywhere from 1- 3 additional boosters between now and April 2019. In the latter scenario, all unflown – mid-build or completed – Falcon boosters would be 'claimed' between now and March or April.

Put another way, short of opting for a delay that could stretch 4 months or more, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and Radarsat prime contractor MDA wants to accept one of SpaceX's flight-proven Falcon 9s.

Falcons on wheels

Thanks to SpaceX's trusty and well-worn method of using heavy trucks and roads to transport Falcon 9 and heavy boosters, upper stages, fairings, landing legs, and much more cross-country, spaceflight fans have taken advantage of opportunities – rare and fleeting as they might be – to spot and track SpaceX hardware on public roads. Put simply, a lot of people are excited about SpaceX or are at least familiar and curious. As a result, the community averages dozens of 'core spotting' per year. With a little intuition, the process of elimination, a few sources, and some wild things, very roughly) paint a picture of SpaceX's fleet of rockets.

For example, the Falcon 9 spotted in Valencia, CA on January 22nd by Reddit user intamin1 could theoretically be any SpaceX booster currently in existence. By knowing the rough state of SpaceX's fleet (as described above) and observing that the booster was northbound between Hawthorne, CA (the factory) and Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) on Jan 22, a great deal can be intuited. Bound for SpaceX's West Coast Launch Complex (SLC-4), it ought to be flightworthy. McGregor, Texas static fire on January 10th means the spotted booster can not (or at least should not) come from Texas, as Falcon Heavy has no known launches planned by VAFB , The process of testing, inspecting and preparing Falcon boosters for cross-country shipment is not rushed.

On the East Coast, SpaceX needs to launch satellite communications PSN-6 and spaceflight rideshare GTO-1 in mid to late February , PSN-6 / GTO-1 already in the phase of payload fueling, integration, and fairing encapsulation, it can be said that it is a flight-proven booster Mission Month ago and is now nearly ready for its third flight somewhere in Cape Canaveral, FL.

SpaceX manufactures Falcon 9 and Heavy at its Hawthorne, CA factory. (SpaceX)

Given that B1046 and B1049 are on the West Coast after they are released from the VAFB and that B1050 is out of circulation for the time being, only B1047 and B1048 remain in the East Coast, both having flown two missions. B1048 was recently spotted and confirmed in photos of SpaceX's Pad 39A integration hangar, although Falcon 9 B1051 and the first orbit-ready Crew Dragon were the center of attention.

B1047 completed its second launch in mid-November 2018 and returned to one of SpaceX's Florida hangars for refurbishment around Nov 21. Unless any number of locals and bystanders have missed it, the booster has left the Cape since arriving. Meanwhile, B1048 is currently the best-known candidate for SpaceX's Crew Dragon In-Flight Abort (IFA) test, expected to occur no sooner than spring 2019 and completely dependent upon the successful launch, reentry, recovery, and refurbishment of the DM -1 capsule to proceed.

Assuming B1048 did not manage to make it from Cape Canaveral to Central California without a single spotting, the only rockets available for the RCM mission are B1046 and B1049. B1049 completed its second launch – Iridium-8 – just returned from the port of LA on January 13th, Falcon 9 B1046 – completed the recovery and was snug in a Hawthorne, CA refurbishment bay Going off Occam's Razor, B1046 is the clear victor for the launch of RCM, although a ~ 60-90-day turnaround for the already thrice-flown booster could be a stretch. B1049, however, would have had a single month for refurbishment and inspections.

In the last week or two, RCM stakeholders have been sent to an updated launch target, delaying the mission implication being that the launch is now expected NET early March. B1049 is filling its refurbishment bay in Hawthorne, CA around the same day. If a risk of a 30-day or greater delay is tolerable for CSA and MDA, then B1049.3 would not be more fit for their risk tolerance profile. Time will tell!

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