Fresh from successful Falcon Heavy launch, SpaceX prepares to fly Spain’s PAZ satellite
Less than two weeks after the successful first launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket, SpaceX looks to continue its string of successful flights with the delivery of Spain’s PAZ radar imaging satellite to a Sun-synchronous orbit. The satellite, the first of its kind for the European nation, is set to lift off atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base’s Space Launch Complex 4E (SLC-4E) at 6:16 a.m. PST (14:17 GMT) on Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018.
The Primary Payload
Sitting atop the 230-foot (70-meter) tall Falcon 9 is the Airbus-built PAZ radar-imaging satellite. The spacecraft will be the first of its kind for the Iberian country, and should provide imaging services to both government as well as commercial customers.
The spacecraft’s primary instrument is a synthetic aperture radar (SAR), capable of resolving objects as small as 9.8 inches (25 centimeters) from its 319-mile (514-kilometer) high orbit. If everything goes as it is currently planned, this slightly inclined polar orbit should allow PAZ to cover the globe every 24 hours.
PAZ will be delivered to the same orbit as two related radar-imaging satellites, TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X, forming a high-resolution satellite constellation. With the trio operating in concert, operators should see an increase in capacity, with a much higher efficacy in initial data acquisition.
The prime contractor for PAZ, Airbus in Spain, leads a consortium of eighteen other European nations in the design and assembly of the imaging satellite, with much of the workload being handled by the Spanish aerospace industry.
“The PAZ programme is already a success story for Spain’s industrial development,” stated Miguel Ángel Panduro, Head of Hisdesat — operator of the spacecraft — in a release issued by Airbus. “It has created hundreds of skilled jobs over the years, and stimulated research, development and innovation activities in Spain.”
Built on the AstroBus spacecraft architecture, the 2,646-lbs (1,200-kilogram) PAZ will be outfitted with batteries and solar cells to supply the satellite with power throughout its planned 5-year lifetime.
A couple of hitchhikers
Tagging along for the ride with PAZ will be two of SpaceX’s own satellites. Microsat-2a and Microsat-2b — both thought to be technology demonstrators for the company’s Starlink satellite broadband service — will secondary passengers on this mission.
Though SpaceX has not publicly stated the exact nature of the two “hitchhikers,” the company’s FCC application for the spacecraft indicates they’re for testing the technologies for the future satellite broadband service:
“On November 15, 2016, SpaceX applied to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) for operating authority for a constellation of non-geostationary orbit (“NGSO”) satellites for provision of broadband services. As a development step towards this initiative, SpaceX seeks authority to launch and operate two test and demonstration satellites over the course of 24 months. These are experimental engineering verification vehicles that will enable the company to assess the satellite bus and related subsystems, as well as the space-based and ground-based phased array technologies.”
Once deployed in the lower 319-mile (514-kilometer) orbit shared by the primary payload, the two smaller satellites are designed to utilize their onboard propulsion systems to raise their orbit to 699 miles (1,125 kilometers). SpaceX hopes to operate the pair of demonstrators for at least 20 months — or until such time as the primary mission goals are no longer achievable — after which the spacecraft should be deorbited.
Previously-flown Falcon 9 for the ride to space
While the mission will feature several firsts, notably Spain’s first radar imaging satellite, and SpaceX’s broadband service demonstrator satellites, the launch vehicle is not one of them. Indeed, the Falcon 9 tapped for this flight has flown on a previous mission with the launch of Formosat 5.
Though the trio of satellites is well-below the mass limit for recovery of the booster, it appears that this core will be expended as the core has been seen without any of the normal recovery hardware attached to it.
Perhaps nothing is more a testament to SpaceX’s success of recovering as much of its rockets as is practical than is the notability of the expendable nature of this particular Falcon 9.
Once the first stage has completed its job and separates from the second stage, it will be left to follow a ballistic arc and splashdown into the Pacific Ocean, not to be recovered.
While the event is not yet scheduled on the site, SpaceX may stream the launch live on its YouTube channel. This is the company’s fourth planned launch of 2018.
Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.