SpaceX’s rate of launch set to accelerate with launch of JCSAT-16
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — With the year more than half over, SpaceX is ramping up launch operations at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) in Florida. Not one but two launches are planned between now and Sept. 3. While not as exciting as a mission to the International Space Station, these commercial flights are helping SpaceX demonstrate it can rapidly send payloads into orbit.
The first flight, that of the JCSAT-16 telecommunications satellite, is currently set to take to the skies at 1:26 a.m. EDT (05:26 GMT) Aug. 14 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Space Station’s SLC-40. When the Space System Loral-built comm sat launches, it will mark the eighth mission this year carried out by Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX.
Weather conditions currently provide an 80 percent chance of favorable conditions for launch. The primary weather concerns for this mission are cumulus and thick clouds.
This particular flight will mark the second time SpaceX has lofted a payload on behalf of Japanese Corporation Sky Perfect JSAT Corporation. The first was JCSAT-14, which launched May 6 of this year (2016).
SpaceX has approximately two hours in which to launch the satellite. Once in orbit, JCSAT-16 will be controlled by the JSAT telecommunications firm. According to an article posted on NASASpaceFlight.com, JCSAT-16 is based on the SSL-1300 bus and was constructed by Space Systems Loral.
According to a report appearing on Spaceflight Now, the satellite will serve as an on-orbit spare for the JCSAT fleet and is targeted to reside at 162 degrees east longitude in a geostationary orbit. It will employ its array of Ku and Ka-band transponders and antennas to provide communications services across Asia. In its role as a spare, the new spacecraft will work to serve as a back-up for JSAT’s Superbird B2 satellite (which was launched on an Ariane 4 booster in 2000).
The launch vehicle successfully carried out a static hot fire test at approximately 11 p.m. EDT August 10 (03:00 GMT Aug. 11). This is the last major milestone that all of the roughly 229.6-foot (70-meter) tall Falcon rockets undergo before being sent aloft.
The two-stage “Full Thrust” Falcon 9 is the latest version of SpaceX’s highly-successful rocket. First flown in 2010, the rocket has been modified to include capabilities no other in-service rocket has achieved in the nearly 60 years since the start of the Space Age.
SpaceX stunned long-time space analysts on Dec. 22 of last year (and again on July 18, 2016) by having the first stage of the Falcon 9 conduct a controlled landing back at Cape Canaveral’s Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1, formerly Space Launch Complex 13). However, as any naval aviator will tell you, it is far more difficult to land on a moving platform out at sea – but this is something SpaceX has also become adept at achieving.
The NewSpace firm has managed to have the first stage of its rocket land on what are known as Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ships (ASDS) three times so far. SpaceX is hoping that Sunday’s launch attempt will mark the fourth time the Of Course I Still Love You ASDS will transport another stage back to Port Canaveral.
The company has stated it plans to reuse one of the flown stages as early as this fall (according to reports on Space.com and Space News). If and when SpaceX successfully demonstrates the ability fly pre-flown stages again, the paradigm and associated cost of launching payloads to orbit should drop significantly.
To date, only SpaceX has demonstrated the ability to return the first stage, and more importantly, the stage’s expensive nine Merlin 1D rocket engines back safely to Earth.
The “Full Thrust” Falcon 9 has a mass of some 1,207,920 pounds (549,054 kilograms). Measuring an estimated 12 feet (3.7 meters) in diameter, the rocket is described by SpaceX as being able to send some 50,265 pounds (22,800 kilograms) to low-Earth orbit (LEO) or 18,300 pounds (8,300 kilograms) to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO).
Nine Merlin 1D engines along with aluminum-lithium alloy tanks, which contain the launch vehicle’s liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene (RP-1) propellant, are incorporated into the Falcon 9’s first stage. According to SpaceX, the amount of thrust the Merlin 1Ds provide is more than what five Boeing 747s aircraft produce – at full power. The Falcon 9 is capable of producing an estimated 1.7 million pound-force (7,607 kilonewtons) of thrust at sea level and 1.85 million pound-force (8,227 kilonewtons) in vacuum.
Flight computers ensure the rocket is in prime health before it is released from the pad and allowed to get the mission underway. After lifting off, the engines in the rocket’s first stage are throttled at the close of the stage’s flight. This is done so as to restrict the rocket’s acceleration as the Falcon 9’s mass diminishes with the burning of its fuel.
While the flight of a comm sat might not seem all that important for the 14-year-old launch service provider, for SpaceX, JCSAT-16 should serve to increase a key metric for the company – its rate of launch. As noted, this will mark the eighth time a Falcon 9 has taken to the skies, either from the Cape or from Vandenberg Air Force Base’s Space Launch Complex 4E (East).
Two flights, the CASSIOPE and Jason 3 missions, have launched from Vandenberg, with the remainder launching from the Cape’s SLC-40.
SpaceX’s launch operations are also set to expand to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) in 2017 and the under-construction Boca Chica launch complex in Texas sometime in 2018.
The company was looking to see the first flight of the NewSpace firm’s giant Falcon Heavy occur at LC-39A late this year. However, according to NASASpaceflight, that has been pushed to early 2017. Additionally, earlier plans had called for the SpaceX to conduct, sometime in 2016, an in-flight abort of their Crew Dragon spacecraft. However, last year, NASA announced this test would take place sometime after their first unpiloted test flight of the capsule – currently scheduled for May 2017. The abort test would utilize the same capsule used in the uncrewed test flight.
After this weekend’s flight, next up for SpaceX is the Sept. 2 launch of the AMOS-6 satellite, which is being flown to provide broadband coverage to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. The communications payload is built by Canadian-based company MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA) and is being launched to replace the aging AMOS-2 satellite.
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.