Acceleration: Launch of AsiaSat 6 marks uptick in SpaceX launches
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).
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.
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.
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.