Block 5 Falcon 9 debut launch set for May 10
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — After a successful static fire test last week, SpaceX has set May 10, 2018, for the first flight of the Block 5 version of the Falcon 9 rocket. The booster is scheduled to send the Bangabandhu-1 geostationary communications satellite into orbit.
SpaceX performed the static fire test at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A at 7:25 p.m. EDT (23:25 GMT) May 4, 2018, and tweeted soon afterward that it would review the data from the test before announcing a target date a few days later.
In a tweet on Monday, SpaceX announced the May 10 target, which has a 2-hour, 10-minute window that opens at 4:12 p.m. EDT (20:12 GMT).
The 45th Space Wing has predicted an 80 percent chance of acceptable weather conditions during the window with the only concern being thick clouds.
“On Thursday, low-level winds become more easterly, signaling the high pressure ridge is reorienting north,” reads the 45th Space Wing report issued May 8, 2018, “This opens the door for a tropical wave propagating along the periphery of the ridge to move towards the Spaceport. Upper-level clouds will also begin moving in on Thursday and will gradually lower and thicken.”
Conditions are expected to worsen should there be a 24-hour delay. May 11 is predicted to have a 60 percent chance of acceptable conditions with thick clouds also being the primary concern.
Bangladesh’s first geostationary satellite
Being flown into space is Bangabandhu-1, the first Bangladeshi geostationary communications satellite. It was built by France-based Thales Alenia Space using using its Spacebus-4000 spacecraft platform on behalf of the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (BTRC).
At about 7,700 pounds (3,700 kilograms), the vehicle sports 14 standard C-band transponders and 26 Ku-band transponders, according to Gunter’s Space Page. It has 2 deployable solar panels and batteries to produce some six kilowatts of power.
Altogether, the vehicle is designed to last at least 15 years in geostationary orbit at the 119.1 degrees East orbital slot to provide services to Bangladesh and surrounding countries.
According to a 2015 press release from Thales Alenia Space, the satellite was named after Bangladesh’s founding father, Sheikh Majibur Rahman. He was known under the title of Bangabandhu, which means “friend of Bengal.”
Block 5 upgrades
This launch is set to be the inaugural flight of the Block 5 version of the 229-foot (70-meter) tall Falcon 9, which SpaceX has described as the final major upgrade of the vehicle that debuted nearly eight years ago in 2010.
Block 5 sports a number of upgrades, including increased engine thrust, more thermal protection around the nine Merlin 1D engines at the base of the rocket, a thermal protection coating of the first stage to help it during reentry during recovery maneuvers, among others. Additionally, the “octoweb,” the section where the first stage’s nine Merlin 1D engines reside, is bolted on instead of welded as it was in previous versions.
Altogether, company officials have said some 100 or more changes have been made to the vehicle.
The most visible changes are probably the black interstage, black raceway—a protective path that carries cabling and piping down the side of the vehicle—and black landing legs, which are designed to be retracted after recovery rather than removed. Previous versions of the vehicle have been completely white, aside from company logos and other various decals.
According to a February 2018 report in Teslarati, the black sections are likely coated with a heat-resistant material called Pyron, or a similar internally-developed material, although SpaceX has not confirmed this.
Also among the changes are a new design for the carbon overwrapped pressure vessels—the vehicles helium tanks—and a fix for the Merlin engine turbine wheels, which developed cracks during flight. The new helium tank design does not allow liquid oxygen to pool, become trapped, freeze and potentially generate friction, which SpaceX determined was the cause of the September 2016 launch pad explosion.
“We have designed [Block 5] to have improved and increased reusability,” said SpaceX’s Jessica Jensen during a pre-launch news conference for SpaceX’s CRS-14 Dragon mission in April 2018. “We are expecting that vehicle to be able to be reused for 10 flights or more.”
Additionally, SpaceX has been using its existing fleet of previously-flown cores (Block 3 and Block 4 versions) to explore the limits of the hardware. Of the eight flights the company has performed so far in 2018, it only attempted a recovery three times, including the triple-core Falcon 9 flight in February.
“We are looking forward to reuse in the long term,” Jensen said. “It’s always good for us if we can get data that is sort of pushing the bounds.”
Of the five that didn’t attempt recovery, four were on previously-flown first stages. However, they did perform experimental landing techniques, one of which resulted in the stage unexpectedly surviving a soft-landing attempt in the ocean intact. Despite that, the company did not attempt to recovery it and it was subsequently destroyed.
For the first Block 5 flight, a recovery attempt is expected. The company’s East Coast-based drone ship, Of Course I Still Love You, has been deployed to a recovery location downrange in the Atlantic Ocean.
Video courtesy of SpaceFlight Insider
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.