CAPE CANAVERAL, FL – As early as March 2020, SpaceX may be launching one of their rockets and doing something that nobody has done in over 50 years while launching the SAOCOM-1B satellite into low Earth polar orbit!
SpaceX launches a lot of Falcon 9 rockets throughout the year, but one in particular coming up is the SAOCOM-1B mission which is slated for no earlier than March 30th of 2020.Now SAOCOM-1B itself is not really anything out of the ordinary for SpaceX, they launch a ton of satellites for providers like this.This one in particular is a radar based Earth observation satellite that will be going into a polar orbit. This essentially means that it’s going to be orbiting over the North and South poles, perpendicular to the equator. The satellite is pretty lightweight so the Falcon 9 booster, presumably a reused one, is going to perform a Return to Launch Site landing, which is relatively rare these days, but it’s still not the unusual thing about this launch.The unusual bit is that SpaceX is going to be launching this polar orbiting satellite from Cape Canaveral, FL and not Vandenberg Air Force Base on the west coast which is where they usually launch polar orbiting satellites from.Now maybe you’re fully aware of this, but for those that maybe haven’t noticed this in the past, Vandenberg Air Force Base is typically where these launch providers launch their polar orbiting satellites from because they can launch south without having to pass overland for a long time, but to really understand why Vandenberg Air Force Base is the go-to for launching polar orbiting satellites, we have to rewind back to the 1960’s when we used to launch polar orbiting satellites from Cape Canaveral.
It’s really kind of a crazy story, because back in the 1960’s there was a crazy chain of events that caused something that became known as the Herd Shot Around the World. No, that’s not the Shot Heard Around the World, it is the Herd Shot Around the World. What the refers to is that back in November 1960, there was a launch of a Thor Able-Star rocket that was intended to launch a routine covert military satellite into a polar orbit from Cape Canaveral, FL.That booster had a premature shutdown which caused it to get off of it’s planned trajectory.The range safety officer then initiated the rocket’s self-destruct mechanism causing the rocket to break up into a million pieces, but after the rocket was torn up from those explosives, some 400 miles downrange, an unlucky cow was killed by raining rocket debris. This might seem like an absurd reason to stop all polar orbiting satellite launches from Cape Canaveral, FL, but that cow was in Cuba and this was at the height of Cold War tensions.
In fact, official Cuban government publications announced this as a Yankee Provocation and said that this was further proof that the US was trying to take down the government of Fidel Castro. There were even Cubans that paraded a cow in front of the US Embassy with a sign on it that said “Eisenhower, you murdered one of my sisters.”So tensions from this event were pretty high. Fidel Castro even filed an official complaint with the United Nations about this particular event and the United States was forced to admit that maybe some rocket debris might have landed in Cuba.
So with all the commotion that was generated from this event, all polar orbiting satellite launches from Cape Canaveral, FL were indefinitely postponed while they could work on additional range safety measures and that postponement was really never withdrawn and so Vandenberg Air Force Base on the west coast became the go-to for launching polar orbiting satellites. It wasn’t until over 50 years later that the 45th Space Wing started getting analysts to determine whether they could return polar orbiting satellites back to Cape Canaveral,FL and those analysts determined that there were really no technical reasons why they couldn’t launch polar orbiting satellites from Cape Canaveral, FL, but they did recommend that any polar orbiting satellites launched from Cape Canaveral, should have an Automated Flight Termination System or AFTS. The main reason for that is that if the rocket gets far enough downrange, radio communication from tracking stations back in the United States might have a hard time getting to the rocket so having an automated system right on board the rocket was beneficial to making sure that population and animals were safe. SpaceX is the only launch provider that currently has an Automated Flight Termination System so really they’re the only ones that can launch polar orbiting satellites from Cape Canaveral, FL.
The way it looks right now, SAOCOM-1B is going to be the first time we’ve launched a polar orbiting satellite from Cape Canaveral, FL since the 1960’s. Where this really becomes exciting, particularly for SpaceX, is that their launch infrastructure at Cape Canaveral, FL is much more robust than it is at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Take Falcon Heavy for example, right now Vandenberg Air Force Base is not capable of launching Falcon Heavy, because the launch pad is not outfitted for a Falcon Heavy vehicle, but if a satellite manufacturer or maybe the US Government wanted to launch a polar orbiting satellite on board a Falcon Heavy rocket, they could do that if polar orbiting satellites were allowed from Cape Canaveral, FL.
So what do you guys think about this? re excited about the prospect of polar orbiting satellites heading back to Cape Canaveral,FL or should we just stick to Vandenberg Air Force Base?