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SpaceX ready to launch first Falcon 9 rocket of the year

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.

File photo of a Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: SpaceX
Monday's launch window opens at 5:06 p.m. EST (2206 GMT) and extends more than two hours to 7:08 p.m. EST (0008 GMT), according to a SpaceX spokesperson and the U.S. Air Force. Deployment of the 6,649-pound Thaicom 6 satellite is expected 31 minutes after liftoff.

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.

Artist's concept of the Thaicom 6 satellite in orbit with solar panels and reflectors deployed. Credit: Orbital Sciences Corp.
Before December's launch of SES 8, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said the Thaicom 6 launch may include a stage recovery demonstration in the Atlantic Ocean. According to Shanklin, SpaceX will not try the water landing demo with this mission.

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.

A view of the Falcon 9 rocket's nine Merlin 1D first engines inside the hangar at Cape Canaveral's Complex 40. This photo is from a previous mission. Credit: Kimbal Musk via Twitter
The upgraded Falcon 9, known as the Falcon 9 v1.1, uses upgraded Merlin 1D engines configured in a circular arrangement dubbed the "octaweb" and employs larger propellant tanks and more redundant avionics systems. It also features a simplified stage separation system, using three attachment points instead of 12, according to SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk.

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:

  • SpaceX will launch up to three resupply missions from Florida to the International Space Station using the company's Dragon cargo spacecraft. The flights would mark the third, fourth and fifth operational logistics launches under a 12-flight, $1.6 billion contract with NASA.

  • Two Falcon 9 launches are planned from Cape Canaveral with a total of 17 small second-generation data relay satellites for Orbcomm.

  • A pair of Falcon 9 rockets will launch from Cape Canaveral with the AsiaSat 6 and AsiaSat 8 communications satellites for AsiaSat of Hong Kong.

  • Turkmenistan's first satellite, Turkmensat 1, will launch from Florida in late 2014 on a Falcon 9 rocket. The satellite is part of Turkmenistan's National System of Satellite Communications and was originally contracted to launch on a Chinese Long March rocket before SpaceX scored the launch in June 2013.

  • The first test flight of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket is scheduled to launch in 2014 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The Falcon Heavy is powered by 28 engines, with 27 of the Merlin powerplants designed to ignite on the launch pad. SpaceX says it can loft up to 53,000 kilograms, or nearly 117,000 pounds, to low Earth orbit.

  • Two critical tests for SpaceX's efforts to develop a crewed version of the Dragon spacecraft are on tap for 2014. One of the tests will simulate an aborted liftoff from the launch pad, with the Dragon's pusher escape thrusters taking the capsule away from a failing launch vehicle. Another demonstration, currently set for mid-2014, will test the Dragon's ability to escape its booster at the point of maximum aerodynamic stress about a minute after launching on a Falcon 9 rocket.

  • The SAOCOM 1A radar observation satellite is scheduled to launch in late 2014 or early 2015 on a Falcon 9 rocket from California.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.