SpaceX set to launch heaviest payload to date as Tropical Storm Hermine looms
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — While they keep a close eye on a tropical storm churning out in the Gulf of Mexico, SpaceX is continuing with launch preparations for its heaviest payload to date: the 12,125 pound (5,500 kilogram) Spacecom AMOS-6 satellite.
The Israel Aerospace Industries-built communications satellite will launch Sept. 3, 2016, atop a Falcon 9 Full Thrust rocket from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS). The spacecraft is slated to replace the aging AMOS-2 satellite, and provide S-, Ku-, and Ka-band coverage for parts of Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and the United Kingdom.
Although ground crews are working no known issues, Mother Nature may not be as cooperative for an on-time launch. Tropical Storm Hermine is expected to make landfall in the “Big Bend” area of Florida’s Gulf Coast. The path of this storm may significantly impact launch preparations.
The 45th Weather Squadron based out of nearby Patrick Air Force Base is currently forecasting a 60 percent chance of weather conditions that violate launch constraints in their L-3 forecast. The primary concern is wind speeds at liftoff and thick clouds. Should a delay be necessary, the forecast improves slightly for the following day with a 40 percent chance of a weather violation.
However, the Eastern Range is one of the busiest launch sites in the world and NASA is currently planning on sending the agency’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS REx) spacecraft on its way to asteroid 101955 Bennu Sept. 8. That spacecraft will launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket from the Cape’s Space Launch Complex 41.
For SpaceX, this will be the Hawthorne, California-based company’s ninth launch of 2016, eight of which have been on the “Full Thrust” variant of the firm’s Falcon 9 rocket. Although considered to be an iterative upgrade from the Falcon 9 v1.1 that preceded it, the modifications to the Full Thrust version have increased the vehicle’s published liftoff capabilities by as much as 30 percent.
These extended capabilities have allowed the company to attempt recovery of the first stage on the more-energetic geosynchronous launches. Not content to leave performance on the drawing board, SpaceX also boosted the second stage’s Merlin 1D Vacuum (or MVac) engine’s capabilities (by more than 30 percent).
A key component of this performance increase is the use of “densified” propellant. By chilling the liquid oxygen to minus 340 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 207 degrees Celsius) and the RP-1, a highly-refined form of kerosene used as rocket fuel, to 20 degrees Fahrenheit ( minus 7 degrees Celsius), SpaceX has demonstrated the capability to store more oxidizer and fuel in a given volume, as well as increase the flow of propellant through the turbopumps on the first stage’s nine Merlin 1D powerplants and on the upper stage’s lone MVac.
This year has seen the company continue its trend of increasing their launch cadence as well as honing their ability to recover the rocket’s first stage – both on land (at Cape Canaveral’s Landing Zone 1, formerly known as Space Launch Complex 13) and on their autonomous spaceport drone ships (ASDS). So far in 2016, SpaceX has acquired a recovery success rate of approximately 63 percent.
Due to the fuel needed to place such a heavy payload into a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), SpaceX will attempt a landing on the ASDS Of Course I Still Love You for this mission. The drone ship will be stationed some 412 miles (663 kilometers) downrange from the launch site out in the Atlantic Ocean.
As noted AMOS-6 satellite’s mass is at the upper-end of the vehicle’s capability to launch to GTO and still attempt an ASDS recovery with any reasonable expectation of success. SpaceX CEO and Founder, Elon Musk, has often provided predictions and other bits of information via his Twitter account.
As with many communications satellites, AMOS-6 will be launched into a GTO, and will eventually settle into its designated position at 4 degrees West, maintaining a nearly stationary spot in the sky as viewed from the ground. This will be the sixth satellite in the Affordable Modular Optimized Satellite (AMOS) series, and the first to be outfitted with an electric propulsion system.
Of special note for this satellite is a deal inked between satellite operator Eutelsat and Facebook. The social media giant will pay $95 million, over five years, for regional coverage for Internet.org – a consortium of seven companies with a goal of bringing affordable internet access to less-developed countries.
Weather-permitting, the window for the AMOS-6 launch opens at 3:00 a.m. EDT (07:00 a.m. GMT) Sept. 3, 2016, and is slated to extend for about two hours.
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.