SpaceX gears up for a busy autumn
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — October and November are lining up to be busy months for SpaceX. If everything goes according to plan, the NewSpace firm is poised to launch (and land) three Falcon 9 rockets, and it also hopes to carry out the first launch of a “Falcon Heavy” in November. These efforts promise a challenging autumn for Elon Musk’s entrepreneurial space company.
October 2 – SES 11 / EchoStar 105
The first hurdle SpaceX must jump is launching another previously flown Falcon 9 on a flight from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. This flight is slated to hoist a satellite for one of SpaceX’s regular customers – SES. The Luxembourg-based company already agreed to become the first company to fly a payload on a “flight-proven” first stage, which took place on March 30 this year.
The October 2 payload, known as SES-11 or EchoStar 105, is a communications satellite serving North America, including Mexico, Hawaii, and the Caribbean. EchoStar will be leasing Ku-band services in the satellite’s coverage area, while SES will operate the satellite in the C- and Ka-bands. Situated in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) over 105° West Longitude, the 11,904-pound (5,400-kilogram) satellite replaces a previous SES spacecraft, AMC-15, which has flown in the same orbit since 2004. It also provides backup C-band coverage for AMC-18, which launched in 2006.
To date, SpaceX has not released information about which launch the first stage of this flight was previously used on.
October 4 – Iridium NEXT 3/4
SpaceX’s next commercial flight comes barely two days later on October 4 at Vandenberg Air Force Base at 6:06 a.m. PDT (9:06 a.m. EDT / 1:06 p.m. UTC). On that flight, Falcon 9 takes up the next ten satellites for the Iridium NEXT constellation. This flight also marks Falcon 9’s third launch for Iridium.
The Iridium 3 flight brings the total number of SpaceX-launched satellites in the constellation up to 30. A total of 66 out of 81 spacecraft are required in low-Earth orbit (LEO) for an operational constellation. The plan is to build an additional 15 satellites, with nine serving as on-orbit spares and another six kept on the ground to be launched if or as needed.
Each Iridium satellite will stay cross-linked to four others, two in the same orbital plane, and one in each adjacent plane. This setup allows traffic to be handed off between spacecraft and ensure a continuous connection.
The satellites’ positions in LEO – 476 miles (780 km) at an inclination of 86.4° – allow the constellation to provide coverage over most of the world more quickly than spacecraft in GEO. These attributes improve service for Iridium’s U.S. Government customers, which include NASA, USAF, FAA, and NOAA.
The constellation serves as an “infrastructure” system capable of supporting hosted payloads for government and scientific organizations.
October 14 – KoreaSat 5A
SpaceX’s third October customer is KT Sat, a Korean satellite communications company. KT Sat’s payload, KoreaSat 5A, is a Ku-band satellite capable of providing communication services from East Africa and Central Asia to southern India, Southeast Asia, the Philippines, Guam, Korea, and Japan. The 7,716-pound (3,500-kilogram) satellite will be placed in GEO at 113° East Longitude. It will provide services ranging from broadband internet to broadcasting services and maritime communications.
KoreaSat 5A will lift off from KSC’s LC-39A.
November – Falcon Heavy Test Flight
In the midst of this hectic launch schedule, SpaceX is also planning for its next big leap in commercial space launch: the first flight of its Falcon Heavy launch vehicle. This massive rocket comprises three Falcon 9 first stages, powered by a total of 27 Merlin engines, and an upper stage powered by a single vacuum-rated Merlin engine.
Elon Musk has downplayed the likelihood of a successful flight, likely owing to the complexity of the vehicle. In addition to the number of engines involved, SpaceX has set the bar for itself even higher, as they plan to return the first stages for Falcon Heavy safely to Earth as well. Perhaps as a way to set expectations, Musk recently posted a “blooper reel” of SpaceX’s various Falcon 9 landing mishaps before getting them right. To date, SpaceX has returned and landed a Falcon 9’s first stage seven times on land and at sea.
So far, SpaceX has static-tested all three first stages designated for Falcon Heavy.
If proven successful, Falcon Heavy will become the biggest kid on the block, with the ability to send 140,660 pounds (63,800 kg) to low-Earth orbit (LEO) compared to the Delta IV Heavy‘s 62,540 pounds (28,370 kg). The only thing close to that capacity is NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), the Block 1 model of which is designed to carry up to 154,323 pounds (70,000 kg) to LEO. SLS’ first flight, Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), is scheduled to fly NASA’s Orion spacecraft around the Moon sometime in early 2019.
SpaceX also was approached to fly two private citizens around the Moon in late 2018. Assuming a successful flight of Falcon Heavy in November, SpaceX’s ambitious flight will still face challenges, including testing of the Dragon spacecraft’s crew capability, demonstrating the functionality of their spacesuit, maintaining life-support system over lunar-mission durations, and completing its existing Commercial Crew tasks for NASA. If SpaceX accomplishes all the work it set out for itself this autumn, the reward will be more hard work.
Bart Leahy is a freelance technical writer living in Orlando, Florida. Leahy's diverse career has included work for The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, a number of commercial space companies, small businesses, nonprofits, as well as the Science Cheerleaders.