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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket boosted its smallest payload to date early Thursday, taking an ambitious NASA mission to Earth orbit via an unusual trajectory that began at Kennedy Space Center.
The 230-foot rocket doglegged after lifting off from pad 39A at 1 a.m. sharp, adjusting its trajectory toward a southeast bias to deliver the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer, or IXPE, to equatorial orbit. Most missions launching from the Space Coast fly northeast.
Nine minutes after liftoff, SpaceX teams confirmed a successful landing of Falcon 9’s 162-foot first stage on the Just Read the Instructions drone ship the Atlantic Ocean. The booster should return to Port Canaveral by this weekend.
Falcon 9’s 43-foot payload fairing, meanwhile, stood cavernous next to IXPE, which measured 17 feet long and 8 feet wide with its solar arrays deployed. But despite its size, the small spacecraft punches above its weight.
The $188 million mission – $50.3 million of that for launch – will study X-rays emanating from exotic deep-space objects like black holes and the collapsed cores of massive stars known as neutron stars. IXPE will use three identical telescopes to observe polarization, or directional properties of X-rays, from these objects.
“I can’t swear, so I’ll just say it was awesome,” said NASA’s Martin Weisskopf, the principal investigator for IXPE. “I’ve seen many launches in my career and this was picture perfect.”
“I almost can’t describe the feeling. I’m numb with excitement and I’m looking forward to the next 30 days when we make sure everything works,” he said.
Just over 30 minutes after liftoff, SpaceX confirmed successful separation of the spacecraft from Falcon 9’s second stage. IXPE is a collaboration between NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, the Italian Space Agency, and Colorado-based Ball Aerospace.
SpaceX’s success early Thursday paves the way for its next two attempts: the launch of a Turkish communications satellite and a Cargo Dragon resupply mission to the International Space Station.
First up is Turksat 5B: yet another Falcon 9 will launch from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station’s Launch Complex 40 no earlier than 11:58 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 18. It will mark the second time SpaceX launches a Turkish communications satellite designed for both private and government use.
Finally, the year’s last mission is slated to feature an uncrewed Dragon capsule packed with thousands of pounds of cargo, science experiments, and supplies for the crew of the International Space Station. Liftoff from pad 39A is set for 5:06 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 21.
It will mark SpaceX’s 24th resupply flight under contract by NASA, also known as Commercial Resupply Services-24 or CRS-24.
For the latest, visit floridatoday.com/launchschedule.