Turksat telecom satellite set to launch on SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket

The Turksat 5A satellite inside an Airbus test chamber in Toulouse, France. Credit: Turksat

A Turkish-owned communications satellite is set to rocket into orbit Thursday night from Cape Canaveral to open SpaceX’s 2021 launch schedule.

The Turksat 5A spacecraft, built by Airbus and owned by the Turkish company Turksat, is ready for liftoff aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket during a four-hour window opening at 8:28 p.m. EST Thursday (0128 GMT Friday).

The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 rocket will take off from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station to kick off a busy schedule of more than 40 missions planned for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles this year from Florida’s Space Coast and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

SpaceX accomplished 26 Falcon 9 missions in 2020, a record pace of launch activity for the commercial space company.

The launch Thursday night is also the first of at least 40 rocket flights scheduled this year from Cape Canaveral and neighboring Kennedy Space Center, including missions by SpaceX and United Launch Alliance.

Forecasters from the U.S. Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron predict a 70% chance of good conditions during the four-hour window Thursday night. The primary weather threat Thursday is expected to be thick clouds and cumulus clouds associated with a cold front approaching Central Florida.

There’s also a moderate risk of upper level wind shear that could exceed the Falcon 9’s structural limits, forecasters said.

The weather team predicts mostly cloudy skies, south winds of 17 to 22 mph, and a temperature of around 68 degrees Fahrenheit at launch time Thursday.

SpaceX is expected to raise the Falcon 9 rocket vertical on pad 40 early Thursday for final launch preparations, culminating a 35-minute automated countdown sequence. Computers will oversee the loading of densified, super-chilled kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants into the two-stage rocket.

Nine Merlin 1D engines on the Falcon 9’s reused first stage booster will power the rocket off the ground. The launcher will arc due east from Cape Canaveral on a trajectory for Turksat 5A to eventually maneuver into an equator-hugging geostationary orbit more than 22,000 miles (nearly 36,000 kilometers) above Earth.

File photo of a Falcon 9 rocket standing on pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station before a previous mission. Credit: SpaceX

Following a standard ascent profile, the Falcon 9’s first stage will separate from the rocket’s upper stage about two-and-a-half minutes into the flight before beginning its descent toward a SpaceX drone ship parked around 400 miles (650 kilometers) east of Cape Canaveral in the Atlantic Ocean.

While the first stage booster targets a vertical landing on the floating drone ship, two SpaceX vessels are also en route to downrange waters to retrieve the Falcon 9’s two-piece payload shroud.

The Falcon 9’s single-use upper stage, meanwhile, will perform two engine burns before releasing the Turksat 5A spacecraft into an elliptical geostationary transfer orbit about a half-hour after liftoff.

Turksat 5A, with a launch weight of around 7,500 pounds (3,400 kilograms) will deploy its power-generating solar panels and extend articulating pods holding plasma thrusters, which will slowly raise the satellite’s orbit to geostationary altitude more than 22,000 miles over the equator. At that altitude, Turksat 5A will orbit Earth at the same rate the planet rotates.

The orbit-raising phase of the mission will last about four months. The electric thrusters are more fuel efficient than conventional liquid-fueled rocket engines, but produce less thrust.

The satellite will enter service along the equator at 31 degrees east longitude, where its 42 Ku-band transponders will reach Turksat customers across Turkey, the Middle East, Europe, large swaths of Africa, the Mediterranean, the Aegean Sea, and the Black Sea, the company says.

Turksat 5A will become the most powerful satellite in Turksat’s fleet, according to Hasan Huseyin Ertok, the company’s deputy general manager. It will also help secure Turkish frequency rights at the 31 degrees east slot, where a Turkish-owned satellite has not operated since 2010.

Turksat awarded Airbus and SpaceX contracts to build and launch the Turksat 5A and Turksat 5B satellites in November 2017, following a meeting between SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The Turksat 5B satellite, which will host a Ka-band communications payload, is scheduled for launch from Cape Canaveral in the second half of this year.

“Our main focus is Turkey, so it’s centered on Turkey but the whole (of) Europe, the most part of North Africa, and we go all the way to Kazakhstan going to the east. and in the African region, we have most of sub-Saharan Africa and also South Africa,” Ertok said of Turksat 5A’s coverage area.

“We can provide satellite service to anyone in that coverage area,” he said. “It can be a data service, which means bringing data from one point to another, or it can be a TV broadcasting service.”

While Turksat sells services to commercial customers, a major client for the company is the Turkish government. Turksat satellites have supported a range of Turkish civil and military operations.

Ertok said Turksat 5A will provide a “better service with a better price for our customers, to our government.”

“So it’s going to be an important satellite for us, and for our future,” he said.

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