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Expendable Falcon 9 launches indispensable EchoStar 23

Falcon 9 with EchoStar 23 at liftoff

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket with the EchoStar 23 communications satellite soars out of Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. This was the first all-commercial flight from this historic pad. Photo Credit: SpaceX

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — Lighting up the Florida night skies, an expendable SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket soared toward space with the EchoStar 23 satellite after lifting off from historic Launch Complex 39A. Liftoff took place at 2 a.m. EDT (06:00 GMT) March 16, 2017, some 25 minutes into a 2.5-hour long window.

The launch was postponed from March 14, ultimately because of high winds. Throughout the first attempt’s countdown, the weather was spotty at best with conditions periodically entering rule-violating territory.

For this second attempt, however, conditions were much better. Despite being pushed 25 minutes into the launch window because of high-altitude winds, the countdown went by the book. The 45th Space Wing, which supports launches from the Space Coast, predicted the weather would have a 90 percent chance of favorable conditions, with high winds being the primary concern.

“We truly have a tremendous team here on the Space Coast and it’s my honor to be a part of this mission supporting the commercial space industry,” said Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, 45th Space Wing commander and Launch Decision Authority for this mission. “Assured access to space is a team sport here on the Eastern Range. This operation once again clearly demonstrates the successful collaboration we have with our mission partner SpaceX as we continue to shape the future of America’s space operations and showcase why the 45th Space Wing is the ‘World’s Premier Gateway to Space.’”

EchoStar 23 was the payload for the 230-foot tall Falcon 9. Because the communications satellite was heavy enough and traveling to a high-energy geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), the rocket needed as much fuel as possible. As such, a first stage recovery was not attempted.

This was the first legless SpaceX booster since April 2015 and is expected to be one of the last expendable Falcon 9 rockets. According to SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk, future payloads like EchoStar 23 will either be flown on a Falcon Heavy or an upgraded “Block 5” Falcon 9.

The SpaceX launch conductor took the launch readiness poll at around 12:48 a.m. EDT (04:48 GMT). Loading of rocket grade kerosene into both stages began at 70 minutes before liftoff. That was followed by liquid oxygen 45 minutes before liftoff.

At seven minutes before liftoff, the nine Merlin 1D engines at the base of the Falcon 9 began a chill phase to condition them before launch. About five minutes later, the Range Control Officer verified the range was clear for flight.

About 60 seconds before launch, the propellant tanks were pressurized. At three seconds to liftoff, the nine Merlin 1D engines ignited and powered up to full throttle. Once the onboard computer deemed all was well, the launch mounts were commanded to release the vehicle.

Meanwhile, once the rocket was released, the strongback – the structure used to transport the Falcon 9 from the hangar to the launch pad and lift it to the vertical position – performed a movement known as the “throwback” where the whole structure rapidly moved out of the way of the rising rocket. The strongback lowered to about 45 degrees from the vertical position in about 8 seconds.

Launch streak of F9 with EchoStar 23

The Falcon 9 arcs toward its targeted geostationary transfer orbit to deposit the EchoStar 23 satellite. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Producing 190,000 pounds (845 kilonewtons) of thrust each, the nine Merlin 1D engines powered the vehicle vertically to clear the tower at LC-39A. Then the rocket began its pitch, yaw, and roll maneuver toward its designated geostationary transfer orbit.

Just after a minute into the flight, the vehicle surpassed the speed of sound and the moment of peak mechanical stress on the rocket known as Max Q.

At 2 minutes, 43 seconds, the first stage engines shut down. Four seconds later, the first and second stages separated.

EchoStar 23 undergoing testing

EchoStar 23 undergoes tests before being shipped to the launch site. Photo Credit: SSL

Eight seconds after separating, the single Merlin 1D Vacuum engine ignited and powered to full throttle. It produced about 205,000 pounds (914 kilonewtons) of thrust as it continued to push it and EchoStar 23 to orbit.

The second stage fired for about five-and-a-half minutes. During that time, at 3 minutes, 43 seconds, the vehicle was far enough out of the atmosphere and the fairing was no longer needed to protect EchoStar 23. As such, it was jettisoned.

At 8 minutes, 31 seconds, the second stage engine cut out as planned. The booster and spacecraft were in orbit.

At 2:26 a.m. EDT (06:26 GMT), after spending 18 minutes coasting, the Merlin engine ignited for a second time, this time for a 1-minute burn, to increase the higher end of its orbit to around 22,000 miles (35,000 kilometers) – the geostationary transfer orbit.

EchoStar 23 separated from the second stage 34 minutes after leaving LC-39A. Next, the satellite will deploy its solar panels and begin circularizing its orbit at 22,000 miles (35,000 kilometers) using its own engines.

Once at this altitude, the spacecraft will orbit Earth at the same rate the planet rotates. This allows a spacecraft to ‘hover’ over a specific spot. In this case, EchoStar 23 will stay over South America at 45 degrees West longitude to provide television services to Brazil.

EchoStar 23 was built by SSL and will be operated by the EchoStar corporation. It has an expected lifespan of 15 years.

The spacecraft is a Ku-band satellite. It has four main reflectors with multiple sub-reflectors. According to Gunter’s Space Page, it weighs about 12,100 pounds (5,500 kilograms) and is built around the SSL-1300 spacecraft platform. Moreover, it has two deployable solar panels that will produce 20 kilowatts of power.

This was the third Falcon 9 rocket to fly in 2017 and the second to utilize LC-39A. It was also the 31st Falcon 9 since its inaugural flight in 2010.

According to the 45th Space Wing, this was the last SpaceX Falcon 9 launch to utilize the Eastern Range’s ground-based mission flight control personnel and equipment in the mission control center.

“All future SpaceX rockets will utilize an Autonomous Flight Safety System which replaces the ground-based mission flight control personnel and equipment with on-board Positioning, Navigation and Timing sources and decision logic,” a statement by the 45th Space Wing reads.

The 45th Space Wing said the benefits of the automated system include increased public safety, reduced reliance on range infrastructure, reduced range space-lift cost, increased schedule predictability and availability, operational flexibility, and launch slot flexibility.

Overall, this is part of the Range’s plan to be able to support up to 48 launches from the Space Coast each year by 2020.

SpaceX’s next launch is expected to be the first flight to utilize a recovered Falcon 9 first stage. The SES-10 mission will see the same booster recovered during the CRS-8 mission back in April 2016. Liftoff is currently targeted for no earlier than late March 2017.

Up next for the Space Coast will be the launch of a Delta IV Medium+ (5,4) rocket with the ninth Wideband Global SATCOM satellite. It is targeting a liftoff at 7:44 p.m. EDT (23:44 GMT) March 18. After that, an Atlas V carrying the S.S. John Glenn Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station will launch on March 24.

If all goes as currently scheduled, that will make three launches in about eight days from the Space Coast.

Video courtesy of SpaceX




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.

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