SpaceX launches a German military radar satellite from California – Spaceflight Now

Falcon 9 rocket soars above the moon in the sky over the central coast of California, carrying into orbit the German military imaging satellite SARAh 1. Credit: Brian Sandoval / Space Flight Now

A four-ton, cloud-penetrating radar observation satellite for the German military took to orbit on Saturday from California on top of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, launching a 10-year mission to collect reconnaissance images in all weather conditions.

The Falcon 9 rocket came to life and climbed from its launch site at the Vandenberg Space Force base at 7:19:52 a.m. PDT (10:19:52 AM EDT; 2:19:52 PM GMT), passing through a layer of fog on a small altitude before breaking into the clear sky for the rest of the space flight with the German radar imaging satellite SARAh 1.

The mission on Saturday continued the busy schedule for the launch of SpaceX, which launched a Falcon 9 rocket on Friday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida with 53 Starlink satellites. Another Falcon 9 is due to launch from Cape Canaveral shortly after midnight on Sunday with the Globalstar communications satellite.

Ten Merlin engines burned a million pounds of kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants on Saturday’s mission. Heading south, the nine engines ran for nearly two and a half minutes in the first phase, after which the accelerator detached from the upper stage to begin maneuvers to return to Vandenberg, a military spaceport located on the central California coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco. .

The first-stage amplifier overturned with cold-throttle propulsion to fly in a first-orientation queue, then started three of its back-burning combustion engines to reverse the course and return to Vandenberg. . The booster reached a maximum altitude or apogee of about 426,000 feet (130 kilometers) before falling back through the atmosphere.

The rocket was guided through the denser air by hypersonic grille fins, touching the concrete landing pad in Landing Area 4 in Vandenberg about eight minutes after takeoff. The landing marked the 125th recovery of the Falcon booster and the sixth Falcon rocket landing in Vandenberg. This was the third flight for this accelerator, tail number B1071.

The LiveX webcast with live video followed the return of the Falcon 9 accelerator to Earth and stopped covering the activities of the upper stage at the request of the German military. The upper stage activated its single Merlin engine to enter pre-orbit and the mission entered an eclipse of the surface until the German military confirmed nearly an hour and 20 minutes after launch that the SARah 1 satellite had been successfully deployed by the Falcon 9 rocket.

The ground controllers of Airbus, which built the SARAh 1 satellite, are expected to make contact with the spacecraft later Saturday.

SARAh 1 begins a 10-year mission to provide intelligence to the Bundeswehr, the German army.

Falcon 9 headed into polar orbit a few hundred miles above Earth, but the exact altitude and inclination reached on Saturday’s mission was not immediately available.

SARAh 1 is the first of three radar imaging satellites commissioned by the German government from the industry in 2013. The Bremen-based OHB is a leading contractor in the SARah program and is building the second and third satellites in the series. Airbus teams in southern Germany produced SARAh 1, the first and largest satellite in the program.

The SpaceX reusable amplifier – tail number B1071 – landed back at the Vandenberg Space Force base about eight minutes after takeoff. Credit: SpaceX

When the development contracts were signed in 2013, SARAh satellites were scheduled to be launched in 2018 and 2019. But satellite-related technical problems, efforts to improve spacecraft encryption and delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic repelled the first Launch of the SARAh spacecraft by 2022

After the engineers finished testing the SARAh 1 spacecraft, it traveled from Germany to the United States by boat, arriving in Baltimore before traveling across the country to reach the launch base in California.

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 high-resolution radar technology” to collect images in all weather conditions, day and night, at sites around the world for the German military.

The German Defense Public Procurement Agency manages the development of the SARAh satellites. The ship built by Airbus, which starts on Saturday, carries an active radar antenna with a phased array, based on technology developed for civilian surveillance satellites TerraSAR, TanDEM-X and Paz.

“This technology offers the benefits of very fast targeting and very flexible beamforming to deliver images in record time,” Airbus said in a statement.

The artist’s concept for the SARAh 1 radar satellite in orbit. Credit: Airbus

Two smaller SARAh spacecraft, built by OHB, will fly with passive synthetic aperture radar reflectors. The German military said earlier this month that the second and third SARAh satellites would be launched with 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 earth.

The three SARah satellites replace the SAR-Lupe constellation of five German Army spacecraft, which launched from 2006 to 2008.

“Today, without satellites, intelligence, communication and navigation are almost impossible,” the German army said in a press release earlier this month.

“The new SARAh satellites ensure that the Bundeswehr has global intelligence capabilities, regardless of the time of day or the weather,” said the German military. “At the same time, they provide support for early detection and crisis management.”

Illustration of the SARah 1 radar satellite artist (center) with SARah 2 and 3 radar satellites scheduled for launch later this year. Credit: OHB

The launch of SARah 1 marked SpaceX’s 25th mission of the year and the company’s fifth flight from Vandenberg to date in 2022. The next launch of SpaceX from California is scheduled for July 8 with a batch of Starlink satellites.

SpaceX is aiming 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 in SpaceX’s June schedule.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @ StephenClark1.

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