SpaceX’s Just Read the Instructions droneship arrives in Florida following upgrades

SpaceX’s drone ship Just Read the Instructions (JRTI) has arrived in Port Canaveral, Fla. after undergoing refurbishment in Louisiana. The droneship joins Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) at the port, bringing SpaceX’s tally of east coast-based droneships to two. The additional droneship will help SpaceX’s execute its busy 2020 manifest.

(Lead Photo by Julia Bergeron)

JRTI was towed into Port Canaveral on Tuesday after being transported from Louisiana by the tugboat Alice C.

In August, JRTI made the journey from Los Angeles to Louisiana via the Panama Canal. JRTI had been stationed in the Port of LA for the past several years, where it was supporting SpaceX’s Vandenberg-based missions. However, the completion of the Iridium NEXT constellation – which required eight Vandenberg-based launches – and the addition of a landing zone at Vandenberg left JRTI with little action.

SpaceX is, therefore, moving JRTI to the east coast. The company is expected to launch a batch of Starlink internet satellites from Cape Canaveral, Fla. multiple times per month in 2020. This is on top of SpaceX’s standard launch contracts. Thus, with every Starlink launch expected to utilize a droneship recovery, there will be a high frequency of droneship landings in the coming months.

Therefore, the addition of a second droneship on the east coast will give SpaceX greater flexibility, and allow the company to manage situations where two droneship landings are required in short succession.

It also enables the option for the two side boosters from a Falcon Heavy launch to perform droneship landings. This is something that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has hinted at in the past, but there is yet to be a confirmed Falcon Heavy mission that intends to utilize this recovery method.

Regardless, JRTI’s primary purpose is expected to be to help compensate for the large number of Starlink missions.

The 53-degree inclination for such missions requires the droneship to be located off the coast of the Carolinas. The droneship OCISLY has been used for the two Starlink launches to date, along with the Demo-1 mission, which had a similar landing position.

During these landings, the droneship has to battle the strong Gulf Stream current. It is understood that OCISLY’s thrusters have had difficulty station keeping in these tough conditions during the recovery attempts.

Therefore, JRTI arrived in Port Canaveral with higher powered thrusters on its deck. It is not entirely clear if JRTI has already has had its upgraded thrusters installed. There is a chance that the new thrusters onboard JRTI are for OCISLY, so that both droneships can receive the upgrade.

The new thrusters on the deck of JRTI – Photo by Julia Bergeron

During the recent maintenance in Louisiana, JRTI’s two wings were reattached. The droneship is a barge which has been outfitted with wings on each side to increase the width. These extensions had to be removed to allow the droneship to fit through the Panama Canal when it made the journey from the Port of LA in August.

It is not immediately clear how soon JRTI will be ready for action.

SpaceX has two droneship recoveries coming up in the near future with the JCSAT-18 mission no-earlier than Dec. 16, and the third Starlink launch also expected as early as late-December. These two launches are expected to occur far enough apart that OCISLY could handle both of the recoveries if need be.

++ The two drone ships at Port Canaveral – by Julia Bergeron

Another unknown is when JRTI will get an Octagrabber robot to help assist with safing the Falcon booster after recovery. OCISLY is currently the only droneship which is equipped with the robot, but it is understood that there are plans to build one for JRTI. After landing, the Octagrabber robot autonomously navigates itself between the booster’s landing legs, and grabs hold of the vehicle.

This allows the Falcon to be safely secured to the droneship without the need for crews to board the ship in rough seas.

The importance of an Octagrabber became extremely evident on the Falcon Heavy Arabsat 6A mission when the robot was not yet compatible with the Falcon Heavy center core. Due to rough seas, crews were not able to board OCISLY to secure the rocket manually, and the booster ended up tipping over after landing.

SpaceX has since made Octagrabber compatible with the center cores.

As for the west coast, launches from SpaceX’s SLC-4 launch site in Vandenberg, Calif. will likely not be heavily impacted by JRTI’s move to the west coast.

To date, the Iridium NEXT missions are the only flights that were confirmed to have required a droneship recovery for performance requirements. With the Iridium NEXT constellation complete, there are no such missions manifested for the foreseeable future.

Iridium NEXT-3’s booster on JRTI by Sam Sun for NSF/L2

The large majority of launches from the California-based launch site feature lighter payloads, which can support return to launch site recoveries.

In October of last year, SpaceX used its new landing zone designated Landing Zone 4 (LZ-4) for the first time during the SAOCOM 1A mission. LZ-4 was then also used for the Radarsat Constellation Mission in May of 2019.

As of now, there are no confirmed SpaceX missions manifested for the west coast which would require a droneship landing. However, the payload mass for a few national security missions is not currently known.

It should also be mentioned that while SpaceX had the performance capability to perform an LZ-4 landing during the SSO-A mission from Vandenberg in Nov. 2018, the company was forced to land on JRTI. This was due to a range conflict with a critical national security payload at a nearby launch pad.

Without a droneship on the west coast, such conflict could be problematic going forward. That said, national security launches from Vandenberg are infrequent, and SpaceX is also working towards being able to perform some polar and sun-synchronous orbit missions from Cape Canaveral.

Launches to such orbits have been restricted to the west coast for the past few decades, as they require a brief period of flight over Cuba when occurring from Florida. However, Florida-based launches to high-inclination orbits are expected to resume in the near future, with modern technologies allowing for such missions to be executed safely.

The SAOCOM 1B mission, set for no earlier than March 2020, has become the first known mission to make the switch from California to Florida. It is expected to be a return to launch site recovery.

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