Two for the price of one! SpaceX makes history with launch of ABS/EUTELSAT-1
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — At 10:49 p.m. EST (0349 GMT) Space Exploration Technologies, more commonly known as “SpaceX”, got “Two for the price of one” as the company launched two satellites – on a single Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket. The ABS/EUTELSAT-1 mission had been provided with at least a 70 percent chance of favorable weather conditions for liftoff. With a launch window extending some 45 minutes (as opposed to the more common, “instantaneous” launch window the company sees so frequently), the aerospace company had no difficulties getting the two-stage booster off the pad at Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 40 – and into the Florida skies!
While the launch of a communications satellite might, at first glance, not appear to be that important, this perception changes with the fact that the F9 rocket actually ferried two satellites into the black. This marks the first dual payload that the company has ever attempted. It’s all part of what could be a big year for SpaceX.
As mentioned, the ABS/EUTELSAT-1 mission consists of two communications satellites, EUTELSAT 115 West B (also called Satmex 7) and the Asia Broadcast Satellite (ABS 3A), to fly into the black of space.
The launch saw a rare start on the first launch attempt and at the opening of the launch window at 10:49 EST (0349 GMT on March 2) on Sunday, March 1. This evening’s launch was the third that SpaceX has conducted in just the first two months of this year – and it suggests that the amount of flights that SpaceX is able to carry out is steadily increasing.
The two satellites that comprise the payload for this mission were detailed on SpaceFlight Insider as follows:
EUTELSAT 115 West B will be placed into an orbital position of 114.9° West where it will serve to extend coverage from as far north as Alaska and Canada, all the way down to South America. Eutelsat’s website also notes that the satellite will provide “unique” coverage to the Galapagos and Easter Island.
The latest spacecraft in Eutelsat’s fleet is designed to provide greater capacity to reach markets that already have, or are projected to have, increased growth in terms of data, video, mobility and government uses across the Americas. The spacecraft was built by the Boeing Defense and Space, and it will be the first all-electric (technically plasma) satellite that Eutesat will have on orbit. It has been produced to help decrease the amount of mass that the booster will be required to send aloft.
EUTELSAT 115 West B will provide Ku-band resources via three fixed beams which will cover the region from the State of Alaska to Patagonia. The spacecraft has 12 C-Band and 34 Ku-Band transponders. It is hoped that the satellite will advance coverage across a region that covers all the way from Canada down to South America.
The services that the satellite will provide to private, commercial and government customers, according to Eutelsat, include video services which include occasional use Direct to Home (DTH) and DTT (Digital Terrestrial Television). A semi-hemispheric C-band beam will provide coverage that is meant to be optimized so as to provide services such as cellular, video, distribution and mobility.
Eutelsat believes that these services will be of particular interest to: “ISPs, aeronautical, maritime, oil & gas, telecom operators and government agencies, as well as news, sports & entertainment broadcasters.”
By comparison, ABS 3A will be located at 3 degrees West and will connect the Americas, Europe, Africa as well as the Middle East via C and Ku-band coverage. It will carry this out in a similar fashion to that of EUTELSAT 115 West B – by three C-band beams as well as a global beam.
ABS 3A will also have four Ku-band beams that will cover Europe, South Africa and across the Americas. It will be capable of supporting VSAT services, providing TV services, to include distribution, IP trunking, cellular backhaul and maritime services. Like the other spacecraft that will hitch a ride uphill via the Falcon 9, ABS 3A is a Boeing satellite; it too is an all-electric propulsion spacecraft, based off of the 702SP design. The ABS 3A spacecraft has a total of 24 transponders which transmit at a bandwidth of 72 MHz.
ABS 3A should be deployed first, about a half an hour after liftoff, with Eutelsat 115 West B being released approximately five minutes later.
The Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket was powered on some 10 hours prior to launch. Typical launch procedures appear to have been carried out without incident – with the turbulent Florida weather being the chief cause for concern.
At about three hours before the vehicle leapt off the pad, SpaceX began loading RP-1 (a highly-refined form of kerosene) into the Falcon 9. Twenty-five minutes later, the oxidizer – liquid oxygen, more commonly referred to as “LOX” – was also loaded into the rocket. Loading of the two components of the launch vehicle’s propellant was completed a little less than an hour later.
Ten minutes prior to tonight’s flight, the flight’s terminal auto-sequence was initiated with SpaceX’s Launch Director, and the 45th Space Wing’s Range Control Officer providing the go ahead for launch eight minutes later.
With just one minute prior to liftoff, the command flight computer started final prelaunch checks of the Falcon 9 v1.1. At just 40 seconds prior to launch, the booster’s propellant tanks were pressurized. At three seconds before liftoff, the engine controller ordered the engine ignition sequence.
At T-0 a brilliant light emerged from the base of the Falcon 9 booster, lighting the surrounding marshes with an orange glow – which was followed shortly thereafter by the familiar crackle of the nine Merlin 1D engines thundering their burden aloft.
A minute and a half into the flight and the F9 was passing through what is known as maximum dynamic pressure, more commonly referred to as “max-Q.”
Video courtesy of SpaceX
At three minutes into the flight, several things happened at around the same time. First stage engine shutdown / main engine cutoff (MECO) took place with the rocket’s first and second stages separating shortly thereafter. Once staging had taken place, the second stage’s engine was activated and the next phase of the mission began.
A minute later, just four minutes into the flight, the payload fairing – having completed its task of protecting the two spacecraft through Earth’s atmosphere – separated and fell back to Earth. Nine minutes after launch, the second stage cutoff-1 (SECO-1) had occurred. It was restarted with a total mission elapsed time of about 25 minutes.
This second firing of the engine only lasted a minute. ABS 3A was deployed 30 minutes into the mission with Eutelsat 115 West B being released five minutes later.
Tonight’s launch was the 16th flight of the Falcon 9 (both the V1.0 and V1.1) booster overall. Fifteen of the rockets have launched from Cape Canaveral, with the remainder lifting off from Vandenberg. SpaceX has been working to develop the methods where the Falcon 9’s first stage would return to land. The company opted to not try to recover this section of the rocket, but it appears they may try again during the flight of CRS-6, currently set to launch on April 8 of this year.
If SpaceX can get the Falcon 9 v1.1 with its payload of two comm sats into the skies on Sunday night, they will still have much more on their plate for the remainder of 2015. Including two scheduled abort tests – SpaceX has as many as 15 flights on its manifest for 2015. This could include the first flight of the heavy version of its Falcon booster, and an in-flight and pad abort test for the firm’s Dragon spacecraft (being conducted in the lead up to the first flights of astronauts under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program).
This year could also see a return of flights from SpaceX’s facilities located at Space Launch Complex 4E in Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. In fact, there is the possibility that as many as three Falcon 9’s could take to the Californian skies.
Video courtesy of Eutelsat
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.