Spaceflight Insider

Acceleration: Launch of AsiaSat 6 marks uptick in SpaceX launches

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches the AsiaSat 6 to orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 40. Liftoff occurred at 1 a.m. EDT (0500 GMT). Photo Credit: Mike Seeley / SpaceFlight Insider

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — Asia Satellite Communications (AsiaSat), a Hong Kong-based company, saw its AsiaSat 6 communications satellite take to the early-morning skies atop SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket. Liftoff took place at ten minutes into the three hour and 14-minute long launch window clearing the pad just after 1:00 a.m. EDT (0500 GMT) on Aug. 27. The launch site was Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40, located in Florida. AsiaSat 6 marked the fifth launch of the year for Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX – an uptick in terms of the amount of launches that the firm has demonstrated it is capable of carrying out. 

AsiaSat 6, a Chinese, geostationary communications satellite, is actually the second AsiaSat to take to Florida’s skies on the wings of a Falcon. The first, AsiaSat 8, lifted off just 33 days ago, on Aug. 5. Fourteen of the spacecraft’s C Band 28 transponders will be leased to Thaicom, a Thailand telecommunications business. Thaicom will then market them as Thaicom 7 ( Thaicom 6 was launched atop a Falcon 9 on January 6 of this year). The satellite, built by Space Systems / Loral, is based on the LS-1300LL satellite bus.

This morning’s launch saw the ComSat deployed at longitude 120 degrees East and will provide services across Australia, New Zealand and across Southern Asia. All AsiaSat satellites provide telecommunications services to the Asia-Pacific region. AsiaSat 6 was delivered to Cape Canaveral via an Antonov An-124 transport aircraft.

All total, the Falcon 9 stands an impressive 223 feet (68 meters) tall and is approximately 10 feet (3.66 meters) in diameter. At liftoff, it has a mass of some 1,113,334 pounds (505,000 kilograms) and has the capacity to deliver payloads weighing as much as 29,673 pounds (13,500 kilograms) to low-Earth-orbit and about  pounds (4,850 kilograms) to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO).

Photo Credit: Mike Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

Photo Credit: Mike Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

With the weather cooperating, SpaceX moved forward with the company’s normal launch procedures in the late evening hours of Aug. 26. About four hours prior to liftoff, the fueling process began with the addition of RP-1 (a highly refined version of kerosene) propellant to the rocket’s first stage. Just one hour before launch, fuel and Thrust Vector Control were bled from the Falcon 9’s second stage to ensure that no air was in the nozzles. The Falcon 9 also uses helium which serves to both pressurize and maintain the propellant tanks at the correct pressure during ascent. The use of this gas has vexed SpaceX mission planners in the past, causing several delays.

Some 10 minutes before the start of morning’s flight, the “terminal phase” of the countdown began. Just six minutes before liftoff, the launch vehicle’s onboard launch sequence was activated. A minute later and the Falcon 9 v1.1 was transferred over to internal power and its fuel tank was pressurized. Shortly after that and the flight termination hardware, the same system that brought down the Falcon 9 Reusable during the Aug. 22 flight test, was armed.

The purpose of this system is to prevent an errant booster from crashing into a populated center. Two-and-a-half minutes prior to liftoff, SpaceX’s Launch Control Director provided the go-ahead for the early morning launch. He was followed a half minute later by the Eastern Range. With just 60 seconds prior to liftoff, the Falcon 9 v1.1 was running on internal power. “Niagara” the acoustic-dampening deluge of water was activated.

With the litany of requirements to allow a launch to take place in the “green” the nine Merlin 1D engines in the Falcon 9’s first stage roared to life, announcing their presence to the surrounding marshlands. The approximately 1.3 million pounds of thrust would not be denied, sending booster and its precious cargo off the launch pad and into the dark skies above. The Falcon 9 burns an estimated 2.2 metric tons of fuel – every second.

The first stage was active for about three minutes. After this time, staging occurred and the F9’s first stage fell back to Earth. Unlike recent flights of the launch vehicle, this booster had none of the systems which the company is testing out to reuse the first stage. SpaceX has employed thruster firings and landing gear under an effort to have future Falcon 9s conduct a propulsive return to the launch site.

Unlike other recent Falcon 9 rockets, this one lacked the landing legs used to carry out controlled descent tests. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

Unlike other recent Falcon 9 rockets, this one lacked the landing legs used to carry out controlled descent tests. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

After staging, the Falcon 9’s single Merlin 1D was tapped to deliver AsiaSat 6 to its destination. The first AsiaSat spacecraft, AsiaSat 1, was sent aloft in April of 1990. Between that mission and last year, four additional spacecraft, AsiaSats 3S, 4,5 and 7 were also placed on orbit.

The F9 which carried out the early-morning launch had to place AsiaSat 6 in a high Geostationary Transfer Orbit. The fuel needed to carry out this task meant that SpaceX would not have the fuel required to carry out one of its iconic controlled descents.

As noted above, this marked the fifth flight of the Falcon 9 in 2014. Since the company began using the booster, it had only been able to carry out about two launches annually of the rocket – until now. With the United States Air Force considering the rocket for use under the lucrative Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program and NASA already utilizing it to deliver cargo (and potentially crew) to the International Space Station, the rocket has become a popular player in terms of launch services.

The next mission that SpaceX should use the propulsive descent landing system on, is the launch of one of the firm’s Dragon spacecraft carrying out NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services 4 (SpX-4) mission – currently scheduled to take place on Sept. 19. 

 

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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.

Reader Comments

Great detailed report! Thanks.
Looking forward to your next report and the SpaceX next “iconic” 1st stage propulsive landing test.

SpaceX will probably perform landing tests on any launch that can absorb the payload penalty necessitated by the tests.

The real question is, assuming that SpaceX can eventually get the Falcon 9 first stage to perform all the maneuvers required for a launch site return/landing, how large will that payload penalty be?

In other words; how much, if any, payload capacity will the Falcon 9 have left?

They have already launched payloads to LEO and Dragon to ISS and then returned the booster to ocean landing (3 times?). While all of the boosters have been destroyed on landing by wave action or falling over in waves, I think that should answer your initial question. The real question is how many launches to LEO that it can be used on vs those to GEO that it can’t because of the required fuel margin used. Is there possibility that they will ever gain the ability to use it on GEO mission as the Falcon is improved. If so will buyers of the launches just build heavier satellites which use up that increased margin. GEO seems to be the more important market historically, but as operators increasingly use new technology and try to simplify and distribute capabilities this trend may shift somewhat.

You are missing the point.

(1) They have yet to demonstrate that they can align the vehicle over a fairly small landing area before landing. If they can, that will require more fuel to be held in reserve and that fuel will have to be subtracted from the vehicles payload capacity.

(2) If they wish to return the stage to the launch site before landing, they have yet to demonstrate that they can perform a retrograde maneuver (negating the stage’s down range velocity and imparting velocity to the stage back to the landing site). If they can, that will require more fuel to be held in reserve and that fuel will have to be subtracted from the vehicles payload capacity.

Each of those tasks will require more fuel than the “landing” burn they have demonstrated and will significantly further reduce the payload capacity of the vehicle.

Again the question is, what will the payload capacity then be? Will it be (for instance) enough to get a Dragon vehicle to the ISS?

The answer to that question is by no means assured.

@Joe. You don’t seriously think that SpaceX is going through all the hoopla of designing and testing reusability without having calculated exactly the answers to your questions beforehand? I mean, that is an impossible assumption. They are not testing how much fuel all manouvering will cost, rather the technicalities in practice. Fuel consumption can be calculated quite accurately.

Fuel consumption can be calculated. Neither of us can do it precisely for the Falcon 9 first stage because SpaceX does not reveal information in public to make that possible. However, calculation done in abstract, make the scenario SpaceX is promulgating (fly back to launch site and perform precision powered vertical landing) look extremely questionable.

I am not trying to pick an interminable fight with SpaceX fans here. I wish I could believe that the scenario was practical, but I refuse to suffer from a space enthusiast equivalent of “Stockholm Syndrome”.

If you listen to the launch open line where each event is called – some one says – first stage restarted – a while after separation.

I am pretty sure they relit the first stage this time, and just didn’t tell anyone about it. Maybe they were testing but didn’t have enough fuel to make it all the way to a soft landing?

Perhaps so. But that only further validates what I said.

SpaceX knows that they can get to the ISS and land the first stage because they have the data which tells them how much fuel is left. As you can see they also have pictures inside the tank which also prove the data correct. I am quite confident they can land on any object they choose to do. It was expressed confidently by Elon, after the last attempted water landing.
In the future when Falcon Heavy gets ready they will use it for the longer distance trips to space, and having every first stage land independently.

“As you can see they also have pictures inside the tank which also prove the data correct.”

You say that it can be seen in pictures, but provide no links to such pictures.

If you could provide such links, along with an analysis as to how the pictures show the mass of remaining fuel, it would be greatly appreciated.

Joe

Here you go: https://plus.google.com/u/0/wm/4/

Scroll down the page you will see the tank from the current mission.
🙂

Joe,

Try this: https://plus.google.com/117039636053462680924/

Scroll down the page you will see the tank from the current mission. The picture shows how full the tank is, SpaceX would know what they are looking at to know how much fuel there is. If you want an analysis talk with them at SpaceX, I am not here for that…

Thanks,

It should be noted that the picture appears to be looking down the long axis of an empty tank. Even the caption (on the site called the “Elon Musk Fan Club” – did not know there was one of those) says “Asiasat6 F9 fuel tank almost empty”.

No really sure how that bolsters the case that they would have plenty of excess fuel for a return to launch site landing.

Nice article Jason, quite poetic in places. Do I detect a certain amount of optimism and reduced antipathy in your writing? 🙂
Cheers

Dear Mr. Shipley,
SpaceX supporters appear to find honest reporting of negative aspects regarding the firm as “antipathy.” Journalists are trained to report negative and positive events as they are. If you’ll review my Op-Ed on the media blackout SpaceX conducted – it doesn’t reflect much optimism because SpaceX’s actions weren’t very positive.

In the age of electronic journalism, “citizen journalists” and the 24 hour news cycle, the public seems to lack the understanding that the role of the media is to relay the events, the good, the bad in the ugly – with as little bias as possible. It isn’t our job to inject optimism – when there is none. Moreover, it also isn’t our place to attempt to make a positive event – negative. The media are not extensions of SpaceX’s, NASA’s or any other organization’s public relations office.

SpaceX has, for the most part, done well in 2014, the media blackout and loss of the F9R not withstanding. Should that change – the tone of our stories will reflect that. In short, SpaceFlight Insider is dedicated to reporting the events separate from the personal preferences of supporters or detractors. We feel that this honesty is the best way to contribute to space exploration efforts.

Sincerely, Jason Rhian – Editor, SpaceFlight Insider

Thanks Jason,
This is one of the few blogs that will even print anything that’s perceived as a space x negative by the spacex enthusiasts. Thanks for bringing us the facts as reported, it’s greatly appreciated.
It is funny how the spacex crowd keeps throwing out this “old space” phrase to anyone they perceive as anti space x and using the phrase “New space” as if it’s all good because it’s new.
And your right, even if an article is not portrayed with blatant optimism towards spacex, the spacex groupies will attack whoever they feel is a threat.

@Jason: and we appreciate your unbiased journalism greatly.
Thanks and well done!

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