Launch of GovSat-1 clears the way for first flight of Falcon Heavy
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – The tiny European nation of Luxembourg was able to honor some of its commitments to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization by having the GovSat-1 communications satellite sent to orbit today. SpaceX successfully sent the spacecraft aloft via a ‘Full Thrust’ Falcon 9 rocket at 4:25 p.m. EST (21:25 GMT) on Wednesday, Jan. 31. The flight helped set the stage for one of the most anticipated missions of 2018.
Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 was the site from which GovSat-1 was sent to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) via the nine Merlin 1D rocket engine’s thunder and flame. It will now be jointly operated between Luxembourg and satellite operator SES.
Weather was the primary concern in terms of today’s launch with only a 40 percent chance that the pre-flown Falcon 9 would be able to lift off on time. While sunny (and slightly chilly), the skies dished out more than a little wind which had mission planners worried.
When all was said and done, SpaceX pushed through the stiff Florida breeze and into the skies above Florida’s Space Coast, sending its precious cargo into the black of space.
As noted, the Falcon 9 that conducted today’s flight has flown before – sending the classified NROL-76 payload to orbit in May of last year (2017) on behalf of the National Reconnaissance Office.
The mission got underway at the very start of the slightly more than two hour launch window at 4:25 p.m. EST. The path to the flight’s beginning actually started an hour and 13 minutes prior to liftoff with the approval by the launch director to beginning loading propellants into the Falcon 9. About three minutes later RP-1, a highly-refined, aerospace grade version of kerosene, began coursing into the booster.
Thirty-five minutes prior to T-0 and liquid oxygen loading of the rocket got underway. Roughly 28 minutes after that and the Falcon 9 underwent an engine chill phase prior to flight.
At about a minute prior to the rocket taking off from SLC-40, the Falcon 9’s flight computer began final prelaunch checks. Also at this time, propellant tank pressurization to flight pressure began.
This Falcon 9 did not attempt a landing on either the “Of Course I Still Love You” Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship or at Cape Canaveral’s Landing Zone 1. Despite the fact that no landing was attempted, the 1032.2 core still sported the landing legs and fins that allow the rocket’s first stage to land at either location. There was a good reason why the rocket included these components.
SpaceX’s CEO and Founder Elon Musk noted on Twitter, that this F9 did test out a very high retro-thrust landing on water. Musk posted an image of the first stage laying on its side in water and stated that the company would try to tow it back to shore.
GovSat-1 will use both X-band as well as military grade Ka-Band frequencies via high power and highly-steerable mission beams, making the spacecraft capable of supporting multiple operations. It turns out that NATO will not be the sole beneficiary of GovSat-1’s capabilities.
“While NATO is certainly a focus user-group, that we target specifically in the context of…defense…having some of the significant capabilities of the satellite being used for supporting NATO,” Patrick Biewer, CEO of GovSat told SpaceFlight Insider. “But next to NATO, we will also provide satellite communications to European nations, as well as to the U.S. and any allied nation.”
GovSat-1 is targeted to be sent to geostationary orbit about 22,000 miles (35,406 kilometers) over the equator. It will serve customers in Europe and the Mediterranean and is a multi-mission satellite providing X-band and Military Ka-band capabilities. GovSat-1 comes equipped with steerable spot beams and an advanced Global X-band beam and was built by Orbital ATK, it is planned to be positioned at 21.5 degrees East.
The mission had been slated to get underway on Tuesday, Jan. 20, but an issue with a sensor on the Falcon 9’s second stage forced a scrub of that attempt.
This was only the second flight from SLC-40 since the 2016 explosion of another Falcon 9 that held the $185 million Amos-6 satellite. The rocket had been sitting on the pad awaiting a test.
This afternoon, just 45 seconds prior to the opening of the launch window – SpaceX’s launch director gave the go ahead for launch operations to proceed.
The nine Merlin 1D engines began their engine ignition sequence three seconds prior to the scheduled liftoff, a command from the rocket’s engine controller gave the order that, essentially, got the mission underway.
Everything proceeded as advertised, with the rocket passing through the period of the flight that places both it and its precious cargo under the greatest amount of stress about one minute and 18 seconds after leaving the pad (this is known as maximum dynamic pressure or “max Q”).
Two minutes and 38 seconds into its ascent, the Falcon 9’s first stage underwent engine shutdown/main engine cutoff (MECO) with the rocket’s two stages separating two seconds after that, with the lone Merlin 1D on the rocket’s second stage activating a second later.
Once the second stage had carried GovSat-1 through a majority of Earth’s atmosphere, the rocket’s payload fairing (nosecone) separated, revealing the GovSat-1 spacecraft (this took place at about three minutes and 44 seconds after liftoff).
Eight minutes and 35 seconds after launch, the Falcon 9’s second stage underwent the flight’s first 2nd stage engine cutoff (SECO-1) – it would not reactivate until the mission elapsed time had reached 26 minutes and 40 seconds. This second burn only lasted for bout one minute and 48 seconds.
After 32 minutes and 19 seconds, Gov-Sat-1 was successfully deployed.
“We expect the satellite to reach its final position around the middle of February,” Biewer said. “At that point, we’ll be in position to do on-orbit testing – which should take us around one or two weeks. That should put us at the beginning of March for the start of operations.”
This was SpaceX’s second flight of 2018 and it came less than a month after the Zuma mission ended with the $1 billion U.S. national defense payload apparently ending up at the bottom of the ocean (that mission launched on Jan. 8). SpaceX has publicly denied responsibility for the incident and the U.S. Air Force has expressed support for the NewSpace firm.
The last milestone on the road to launch, the static test fire of the ‘flight-proven’ Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage, was successfully completed on Friday, Jan. 26. It was the second time in three days that a member of the Falcon family of launch vehicles had conducted this critical test firing.
On Jan. 24, 2018 – 27 Merlin 1D engines fired in unison for 10 seconds on SpaceX’s new Falcon Heavy rocket over at Kennedy Space Center’s historic Launch Complex 39A. In so doing, the path was cleared for the rocket’s first flight, which could come as early as Feb. 6.
The payload for the Falcon Heavy’s first mission is SpaceX’s CEO and Founder Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster. As such, the first flight of the heavy-lift booster could both serve to prove out the capability of the FH and as a publicity stunt to promote Musk’s Tesla Inc. automobile company. Musk has warned that the FH’s first flight could end with an explosion, however, the company’s track record with its riskier endeavors has demonstrated the ability to perform despite predictions of anomalies.
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.