SpaceX ready to launch first Falcon 9 rocket of the year
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: January 5, 2014
SpaceX engineers at Cape Canaveral are finishing up preparations to launch a Falcon 9 rocket with a communications satellite for Thailand on Monday, just over one month after the Falcon 9's last mission from Florida.
The 224-foot-tall Falcon 9 rocket will be rolled to the launch pad and rotated vertical atop the launch mount at Cape Canaveral's Complex 40 launch pad ahead of the start of the countdown Monday morning.
Fueling of the Falcon 9 rocket with liquid oxygen and RP-1, a highly refined kerosene fuel, will begin shortly after 1 p.m. EST (1800 GMT), with the final terminal countdown sequence programmed to get underway 10 minutes before liftoff.
SpaceX worked over the holidays to ready the Falcon 9 launch pad after the company's successful Dec. 3 launch of the SES 8 television broadcasting satellite, marking the Falcon 9's first mission to geostationary transfer orbit, the desired position for most communications spacecraft.
Officials delayed the launch from Friday to resolve a technical concern with the Falcon 9 rocket.
Emily Shanklin, a SpaceX spokesperson, said the company would not attempt to recover the first stage from Monday's launch, giving Thaicom 6 all the power it needs to soar into a high-altitude orbit stretching as high as 90,000 kilometers, or 55,923 miles, from Earth.
The rocket is shooting for an orbit with a targeted perigee, or low point of 295 kilometers, or 183 miles, and an inclination of 22.5 degrees.
SpaceX hopes to make the Falcon 9's first stage reusable, eventually guiding the spent rocket stages back to a rocket-assisted touchdown on a landing pad near the launch site. Engineers tested the terminal phase of a first stage's return with a testbed named Grasshopper, which completed hops as high as 2,400 feet at SpaceX's rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas.
On the Falcon 9 rocket's first flight from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Sept. 29, SpaceX attempted to recover the first stage with a controlled soft landing in the Pacific Ocean south of the launch site. The rocket re-ignited its engines to slow its speed for splashdown, but the first stage began spinning and the leftover propellant in the fuel tanks centrifuged outward and away from lines leading to the engines, causing a premature engine shutdown.
Monday's launch comes about a year later than scheduled when Thaicom, a public company partially owned by the Thai government and based in the Bangkok metropolitan region, announced the launch contract for Thaicom 6 in June 2011.
Thaicom said in 2011 the Thaicom 6 project was a $160 million investment for the company, including the spacecraft, launch services and insurance.
Thaicom 6's operator has sold more than 66 percent of the satellite's capacity, according to a Dec. 25 press release. Thaicom 6 will be positioned in geostationary orbit at 78.5 degrees east longitude, reaching customers across the Asia-Pacific and parts of Africa.
The satellite, built by Orbital Sciences Corp., will provide the broadcast industry with improved television quality and additional high-definition channels, according to Thaicom. It carries 18 C-band and eight Ku-band transponders connected to three antennas.
In May, Thaicom announced it acquired an unidentified satellite already in orbit to provide interim communications capacity from the 78.5 degrees east position while waiting for the launch of Thaicom 6.
Fearing Thaicom 6 would not be launched to meet regulatory deadlines, Thaicom said the newly-acquired in-orbit satellite would ensure digital terrestrial television stations waiting to use Thaicom 6 complied with "must-carry" regulations requiring broadcasting by a certain date.
Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who tracks global satellite and launch activity, said the AsiaSat 7 satellite was the only candidate for the acquisition by Thaicom. It maneuvered into position last summer at 78.6 degrees east longitude, based on publicly available orbital tracking data, McDowell said.
The launch of SES 8 required an in-flight restart of the Falcon 9's upper stage Merlin 1D engine, a tricky endeavor which failed on a test flight of SpaceX's upgraded Falcon 9 rocket in September.
The launch of Thaicom 6 will duplicate the Dec. 3 flight, sending the 3.6-ton satellite to an orbit stretching more than 50,000 miles from Earth at its highest point. The mission will take about a half-hour from launch to spacecraft separation.
It will mark the eighth flight of a Falcon 9 rocket since 2010, and the third launch of the launcher's newest version since its debut in September in a flight from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The Falcon 9 has established a nearly perfect track record in seven launches to date, with the only blemish coming during an October 2012 launch when one of the rocket's nine first stage engines shut down prematurely. The loss of thrust doomed an Orbcomm communications satellite riding piggyback on the rocket, but the launch's primary payload -- a Dragon capsule bound for the International Space Station -- went on to achieve a successful mission.
Hardware for Monday's launch, including the Falcon 9 rocket and Thaicom 6 satellite, was delivered to Cape Canaveral in late November and put in storage before the launch of SES 8 cleared room for technicians to begin fueling the spacecraft and assembling the two-stage booster.
On Dec. 28, ground crews put the rocket through a full countdown rehearsal. The launch team loaded propellants into the Falcon 9 rocket and ended the countdown with a brief ignition of the first stage's nine main engines. The rocket remained on the launch pad in the grip of hold-down clamps.
The final prelaunch assembly steps included attachment of the Thaicom 6 payload to the Falcon 9 rocket inside the SpaceX-built 17.1-foot-diameter payload fairing, which shields the spacecraft during the early phases of launch.
Once engineers put the finishing touches on the 11.8-foot-diameter rocket, they will transfer the Falcon 9 to the launch pad along rail tracks from the horizontal integration hangar. A hydraulic lift system will hoist the rocket vertical after completing the approximately 600-foot rollout.
Monday's launch opens a busy calendar of missions planned by SpaceX in 2014.
A mix of missions for NASA and commercial satellites are on SpaceX's docket for this year. Here is a list of Falcon launches that could launch in 2014 after Thaicom 6:
Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.