SpaceX set to launch rare Falcon 9 for Inmarsat-5 F4 mission
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — With the static fire successfully concluded, SpaceX is clear to begin final launch preparations of the rarest variant of the company’s active Falcon 9 launch fleet as it readies to loft the fourth of the Inmarsat-5 series of communications satellites. The company is targeting a 50-minute launch window opening at 7:20 p.m. EDT (23:20 GMT) May 15, 2017, at Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A).
Fourth of its kind
Sitting atop the Falcon 9 is the fourth of the Inmarsat-5 series of telecommunications satellites. Initially meant to only be a trio of spacecraft, Inmarsat triggered the option in 2013 to have a fourth built in order to enhance the capabilities of the company’s Global Xpress (GX) satellite broadband network.
Like its three predecessors, Inmarsat-5 F1 through F3, the fourth satellite will provide up to 50 megabits per second of data and voice services to terrestrial terminals. The spacecraft will operate in the Ka- and L-band spectrum and will be powered by two solar “wings” generating a total of 15 kilowatts at the beginning of its life, dropping to 13.8 kilowatts at the end of its 15-year design life.
The Inmarsat-5 family of spacecraft is built on the Boeing 702HP satellite bus. Tipping the scales at more than 13,000 pounds (5,900 kilograms), the satellite is slightly too massive to allow for a recovery attempt of the Falcon 9 first stage.
In contrast to the constellation planned by SpaceX, Inmarsat’s satellites are positioned above the equator in a geostationary orbit, which allows as few as three satellites to provide global coverage.
While most of the company’s recent launches feature either a barge recovery of the first stage or a return of the booster back to a ground-based landing pad, this mission is noteworthy for something quite the opposite: a completely expendable launch vehicle.
Perhaps nothing is more a testament to SpaceX’s success of recovering as much of its rockets as practical than is the newsworthiness of the expendable nature of this particular Falcon 9. Indeed, when much of the excitement surrounding a SpaceX mission centers on the recovery of the booster, discarding the first stage almost seems an anathema.
Recovering the booster is crucial to SpaceX’s goal of reducing launch costs. However, the hardware necessary to perform this feat adds considerable heft to the rocket. With this satellite’s mass at the upper end of the Falcon 9’s capability, every ounce saved in launch vehicle weight directly translates into mass-to-orbit performance.
Therefore, 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 Atlantic Ocean, not to be recovered.
Quick turnaround at LC-39A
Although the company has received criticism for unmet launch projections, SpaceX has made significant progress toward ramping up its launch cadence. While some of this efficiency can be credited to improved familiarity with procedures and workflows with the pad and vehicle, a great portion of the improvement belongs to the actions of the Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) at liftoff.
At Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40, the TEL would retract several minutes before liftoff. This necessitated the use of extended-length umbilical connections to bridge the gap between the retracted strongback and the rocket. This would leave a significant portion of hoses and feed lines exposed to the rocket’s exhaust as the vehicle climbed from the pad.
The procedure at LC-39A differs markedly in that it only retracts a few degrees from vertical before liftoff and only fully retracts as the rocket begins to rise from the pad. This greatly decreases damage to equipment on the TEL, allowing SpaceX to more quickly ready the complex for the next launch.
Indeed, CRS-11 is set to launch 17 days after Inmarsat-5 F4, an accomplishment that would be difficult to reach without this change in procedures.
For the May 15 launch, the weather forecast three days out calls for an 80 percent chance of favorable conditions at the opening of the window, with the primary concern being cumulus and anvil clouds.
Video courtesy of Inmarsat
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.