EchoStar 23 set for launch atop SpaceX Falcon 9 at KSC
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX is set to launch its second Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. Liftoff is targeted for the beginning of a 2.5-hour long window that opens at 1:34 a.m. EDT (05:34 GMT) March 14, 2017.
The weather outlook for March 14 is somewhat favorable with a 30 percent chance of a violation of launch constraints. The primary concern is thick clouds. Should a delay occur, SpaceX has a backup attempt penciled in for March 16. The primary weather concern that morning will be liftoff winds.
The 230-foot (70-meter) tall Falcon 9 rocket will be sending the EchoStar 23 communications satellite to space. As the payload is heavy enough and will be placed into a high-energy geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), it will need as much fuel as possible. As such, a first stage recovery will not be attempted. The last time a SpaceX rocket flew without landing legs was in April 2015.
This flight is expected to be one of the last of the planned expendable Falcon 9 rockets. A future iteration of the vehicle – the “Block 5” – will debut sometime in late 2017 and will include improved landing legs, increased thrust, as well as other enhancements that will increase performance and shorten the turnaround time for recovered boosters.
To date, SpaceX has recovered eight Falcon 9 first stages. The company plans to reuse one of those boosters on the next flight, which will send the SES-10 communications satellite into space.
For this mission, however, the focus is on EchoStar 23. The spacecraft was built by SSL – formerly Space Systems/Loral, LLC (SS/L) – and will be operated by the EchoStar corporation.
The spacecraft is intended to primarily service markets in South America. After being placed into GTO, the vehicle will use its onboard thrusters to circularize its orbit at more than 22,000 miles (35,000 kilometers) over the equator, a location known as a geostationary orbit.
In particular, EchoStar 23 will be placed at 45 degrees West longitude in order to supply Brazil television services. It has a planned lifetime of 15 years.
EchoStar 23 is a Ku-band satellite. It has four main reflectors with multiple sub-reflectors. According to Gunter’s Space Page, the satellite tips the scales at about 12,100 pounds (5,500 kilograms) and is built around the SSL-1300 spacecraft platform. Additionally, it has two deployable solar arrays that will produce 20 kilowatts of power.
SSL announced in 2014 that it was selected by EchoStar to build the satellite. It was originally planned to launch in 2016; however, because of SpaceX’s Sept. 1, 2016, launch pad explosion, which destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket with its satellite payload during a pre-flight fueling test, all flights were suspended until the cause of the anomaly was determined.
In January 2017, SpaceX resumed Falcon 9 flights with the West Coast launch of 10 Iridium satellites. It was expected that EchoStar 23 would be the second launch after the Iridium-1 return-to-flight mission, and thus the first to launch from the newly renovated Launch Complex 39A. However, because additional testing was needed at the pad, it was decided to fly the critical CRS-10 International Space Station resupply mission first.
Nearby Space Launch Complex 40, where the company has traditionally launched Falcon 9 rockets from on the East Coast, remains out of service after it was damaged by the Sept. 1 explosion. Repairs are expected to be completed by late summer 2017.
After the CRS-10 mission was out of the way, processing for EchoStar 23’s mission was able to move forward. On March 7, 2017, the rocket that will be used to send the satellite skyward was moved from SpaceX’s horizontal integration facility and raised to the vertical position for a static fire test. The company performs these evaluations, which involve fully fueling the rocket and counting down to zero for a short three-second engine ignition, to verify all is working properly.
This test, however, was postponed to March 8, where it was again delayed. Ultimately, the firing occurred on March 9. This prompted the launch to be moved from March 12 to its current date of March 14. Engineers are currently poring over the data to ensure everything went nominally with the static fire.
After the test, the rocket, which did not have the payload on top, was rotated back to the horizontal position and rolled back into the hangar where engineers are working to install the payload.
Tuesday morning’s liftoff will be the third mission of the year for SpaceX and the 31st Falcon 9 since the first flight in 2010. Additionally, this will be the Space Coast’s third rocket launch of 2017.
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.